Iraqi's optimistic message to world

Interim Prime Minister Allawi cites progress, saying Iraqis are grateful for Hussein's ouster.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's whirlwind trip to Washington is a visit probably designed to bolster both Mr. Allawi and his White House host.

Allawi gets what foreign leaders always want when they come to the US: a stage on which to appear the equal of an American president. Allawi may have to be careful, though: He needs to appear to be his own man, and not a US puppet.

President Bush, for his part, could benefit from the Iraqi leader's relentless optimism. Since his arrival in the US earlier this week, Allawi has insisted that the situation in his country is getting better by the day - and that most Iraqis are grateful that the US has freed them from Saddam Hussein.

Allawi's "challenge is to present the other part of the reality, the good news such as it is," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington.

That's a tough job, considering the stream of bad news out of the Middle East. US military fatalities have passed the 1,000 mark, the brutal murder of kidnapped civilians from Western nations continues, and some officials are quietly questioning whether violence will necessitate postponement of Iraq's scheduled January elections.

Meanwhile, Iraq's most powerful Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is reportedly becoming restive about the nature of Iraq's progress toward democracy. He opposes any delay in the January vote - and wants more Shiite representation in the nascent political process, according to news reports.

For his part Allawi insists that the election will proceed as scheduled. Such areas as Fallujah that are bedeviled by violence are the exception, the Iraqi leader insisted in a speech Thursday to a joint session of Congress.

The vote might not be perfect. But 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces are peaceful enough that they could hold elections tomorrow, Allawi told US lawmakers.

"Elections will occur on time in January because Iraqis want elections on time," he said.

Allawi, a former Iraqi dissident and medical doctor known for his blunt style and longtime ties to the CIA, said that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are grateful that they are rid of Mr. Hussein's tyranny.

"Thank you, America," he said.

In addition, Allawi associated the fighting in Iraq with the US global war on terrorism. He has said that upwards of 30 percent of Iraqi insurgents are foreigners - an estimate far larger than the US military's.

Thus he implied that Iraq is simply the US forward defensive line.

"We are fighting for freedom and democracy - ours and yours," he told members of Congress.

Allawi said that he is a realist, and that the fight against terrorism will be hard. But he held out the city of Samarra as a positive example - a place where insurgents have been pushed out by local citizens, and regular access to the city has been restored.

He provided an optimistic figure of 250,000 security personnel to be trained by the end of next year. He insisted that basic services are being improved, and homes, schools, and hospitals are being rebuilt. Over 6 million Iraqi children are now attending school, according to Allawi.

"For the skeptics who do not understand the Iraqi people, they do not realize the depth of Iraqi ... desire for freedom," Allawi said.

Reaction to the speech generally broke along lines of support for Mr. Bush's policies in Iraq.

Republicans were upbeat, even gushing. Typical was the reaction of Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: "Anyone who meets [Allawi] knows they are meeting a genuine hero, who is risking his life and that of his family on behalf of Iraq."

Many Democrats were more cautious, and activists opposed to the US presence in Iraq had a harsher opinion of Allawi's Washington appearances. "Today's speech by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi ... is the most recent and desperate episode in the systematic deception of the American people," said former US Rep. Tom Andrews, national director of the group Win Without War.

Allawi himself might be more concerned about how his visit here has played at home. Without a natural political constituency of his own, he needs to build popular support from scratch if he is to be a viable candidate for election to his current post in the coming months. And he has a big negative to overcome: Having been appointed by US officials, he must overcome the appearance of being their puppet, while at the same time not actually incurring their wrath.

"He has to show independence at home by defying his US patrons in a public way," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He hasn't defied his patrons in this particular US tour, or at least he hasn't in any way apparent to an American audience. To the contrary, Allawi has so far seemed to be a dream visitor for the White House - a pugnacious character who as far as they're concerned is saying all the right things.

Allawi, like the Bush campaign, is focusing not on Iraq's messy present but on its possible future.

Allawi needs to convey the sense "that what they're doing isn't simply an attempt to put down the bad guys.... It's an attempt to really do something that will turn Iraqi history in the direction of the great accomplishments that Iraqis have produced in the past," says Andrew Hess, a Middle East expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

That said, Allawi has made some statements that might charitably be judged immoderate, such as his assessment of the percentage of foreign fighters among insurgents battling the US.

While there is a reality of progress in Iraq that gets little attention in the media amidst all the bombings and kidnappings, that doesn't mean that peace and freedom are around the corner.

The insurgency has now become entrenched in Iraq, note experts, and it will be difficult to eradicate. It's as if New York City was overrun with wanton violence because the police force had melted away. Now that police force needs to be rebuilt with raw recruits - while violence continues and attempts to avert the process.

"It's going to take time to reverse," says Mr. Hoffman of RAND.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry said Allawi had been sent before Congress to put the "best face" on a policy gone wrong.

"The United States and Iraq have retreated from whole areas of Iraq," said Mr. Kerry.

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