Two American engineers are found beheaded. Three U.S. soldiers are killed in bomb attacks. It must be Wednesday in Baghdad.
Iraqis every day are repairing businesses, applying for jobs, holding school, traveling freely, and publishing independent newspapers. They are making remarkable steps toward democracy and normalcy under a surprisingly pluralistic interim government. But what leads is what bleeds.
"It's Worse Than You Think," blares a Newsweek headline beneath a wounded and bleeding U.S. soldier. "What Went Wrong in Iraq" is the Foreign Affairs lead story this month. "Pillaging Iraq in Pursuit of a Neocon Utopia" is how Harper's interprets events. Press coverage is overwhelmingly focused on death and unrelentingly absorbed with localized hot zones.
Iraqi leaders wish the watching world would notice that they are shelling out $70 million a day to bolster the economy-money from oil revenues that used to flee the country for Saddam's personal coffers and the UN's misused Oil-for-Food program. They wish the expert observers would notice that they are deploying 45,000 newly trained and newly equipped policemen out on the street-this month.
But American casualty reports keep coming. U.S. forces in Iraq escaped fatalities on only two days in September. The highest death-toll day looked to be Sept. 6, when 12 soldiers were killed, most in a massive car bomb explosion outside Fallujah. The month is likely to end as one of the highest-casualty periods of the 18-month-long war.
Beheadings keep coming. American construction engineers Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, along with a British colleague, shared a Baghdad home while working for a United Arab Emirates contractor. Terrorists abducted all three. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq's reigning terrorist, ritually beheaded the Americans. Seven other hostages in Iraq since April have died similarly.
"I understand the sentiment of Iraqis who want to report progress in a good light," said Kalad Nawash, founder of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. "But we cannot deny that we have a serious problem with security. This problem has slowed down reconstruction substantially, and has to be dealt with."
Threading ongoing conflict across a warp of healthy progress will be President George Bush's challenge when he faces Democratic candidate John Kerry in the first of three presidential debates on Sept. 30. The night's chosen topic: foreign policy and national security.
Sen. Kerry spent the week before the debate sharpening his own position on Iraq. "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure," he said during a speech at New York University.
To prevail against the daily bad news from Baghdad, Mr. Bush must convince voters that the outcome in Iraq is worth the current chaos and the ongoing risk. "It is this big picture that is seldom noticed because of the media's fixation with events of passing importance," notes Middle East analyst Amir Taheri. The big news, he said, "is that Iraq, for the first time since its existence as a country, has a choice."
One of Iraq's underreported successes has been the country's ability to maintain a much-bandied political timetable amidst the violence. Defying great odds, points out Mr. Taheri, Iraq's governing council created a provisional government on schedule. Municipal elections have been held in nearly every part of the country. Despite major differences among ruling Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions-and competition between opposition groups and those who coexisted with Saddam Hussein-the government drafted an acceptable constitution on deadline.
Since the end to formal U.S. occupation, Iraq's interim government convened the National Congress, a representative assembly of 1,300 men and women. It in turn created a 100-member parliament that will oversee the interim government ahead of January elections. It will also oversee a referendum on the constitution and the conduct of general elections. All the while, officeholders-from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi down to neighborhood council members-are frequent targets of assassination.
Those milestones, according to Mr. Taheri, "indicate a remarkably rapid progress toward democratization in Iraq. And yet, at every step we had countless doomsayers who predicted that this or that step would not be taken because of 'security problems.'"
With barely a month to go before U.S. elections, political progress in Iraq is prompting support for Mr. Bush from surprising quarters: American Muslim and other Middle Eastern identity groups. About 25 such groups invited the president to speak at a first-ever gathering to support the war on terrorism on the day after the first presidential debate.
Hosted by the Center for Freedom in the Middle East, the Washington event offers "a more accurate window to 8 million American Muslims and Middle Easterners who favor freedom and reject terror," reads publicity material. Sponsors include prominent Muslim organizations like the American Islamic Congress as well as ethnic and religious minority groups representing Egyptian Copts, Lebanese Maronites, Iraqi Kurds, and Iranian dissidents. Organizers also hail from pro-Israel think tanks, like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.
Mr. Nawash, one of the conference organizers and a Palestinian, told WORLD that the unraveling of Iraq, in part, is responsible for uniting once highly divisive Mideast groups. "What's going on in Iraq today is a good example of what is going on in the entire Middle East," he said. "Part of this battle is a battle about the future of the Middle East. Is Iraq going to be a modern secular state or a closed theocratic state?"
Those who favor what Mr. Nawash calls "political Islam," the marriage of Islamic theology to Islamic government, "have a lot more support than anyone is willing to admit. They want to overturn Muslim and Arab governments and turn them into theocracies. So they will do everything they can to make sure Iraq does not succeed in the short run."
Establishment Muslim organizations have refused to take strong stands against terrorism and the Iraq insurgency, Mr. Nawash said. "We are united in the belief that we in the Muslim community today have a serious problem with extremism and support of terrorism."
Introspection from prominent Muslim pundits may be overdue but is underway. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the popular Arabiya news channel, threw open the door to introspection with an essay last month widely circulated among Arab newspapers and reprinted in London's Sunday Telegraph. "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims," he wrote. "We cannot tolerate in our midst those who abduct journalists, murder civilians, explode buses; we cannot accept them as related to us, whatever the sufferings they claim to justify their criminal deeds."
Does the new rhetoric suggest that Mr. Bush can count on support for war in Iraq from the most unlikely segment of voters, Muslim Americans?
"Whether anyone supports the war is a moot point now," contends Mr. Nawash. "What's important now is that Iraq has to succeed. We cannot afford to have Iraq fail. If it happens to be an Islamic state that stabilizes Iraq it is going to be Islamic states we have. If secular democracy succeeds then it will spread throughout the Middle East."
If quelling the violence and winning elections go hand in hand, then Republicans have work to do on the war issue, despite some polls showing the president leading Mr. Kerry by as much as 20 points on his handling of Iraq. Democrats may have the bad news on their side, but that in itself suggests they face a tougher challenge: drawing a distinct contrast to Mr. Bush without appearing to rejoice in the hardship called Iraq.