The three-month sprint to Nov. 2 that begins this week for George W. Bush and John Kerry will be run across electoral battlefields in the 50 United States. But the dash for presidential gold will also be felt and reflected on the real battlefields of Iraq.
There can be no direct, acknowledged connection between the candidates' political fortunes and the strategy or casualty levels of U.S. forces in Iraq. Neither Bush nor Kerry can afford to appear callous or calculating for partisan gain on the most explosive issue on the national agenda.
But connections can make themselves -- particularly in the minds of the Iraqi civilians who are rapidly becoming objects of American politics rather than catalysts of international intervention. If recent events are a guide, Iraq's civilians will bear the brunt of the low-intensity war that rages in their country while U.S. troops avoid seeking pitched battles over the next three months.
Three developments that came in quick order in April raise that possibility and may have changed the course of the war in Iraq, at least until Election Day: U.S. troops were ordered to storm Sunni and Shiite rebel strongholds to halt the spreading insurgency. U.S. military deaths climbed significantly, reaching 134 that month. And U.S. public support for the war as expressed in opinion polls began to drop sharply as battles in Fallujah, Karbala and Najaf dominated news coverage.
These developments led to a White House meeting in which Bush expressed grave concern to aides, according to two U.S. officials, over both U.S. casualties and the carnage among Iraqis, which was being broadcast by Arab television crews inside Fallujah.
After that meeting, the Marine assault was called off, well short of its goal of breaking the insurgents' hold on Fallujah, and responsibility for the town was in theory turned over to Iraqi security forces. But the outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, recently labeled Fallujah "a safe haven" for terrorists, while news accounts describe Samarra and other Sunni enclaves around Baghdad in similar terms.
"It's the lily pad theory. Fallujah exports itself to Samarra, which exports itself to the next place," Lt. Col. James Stackmo told The Post's Doug Struck last week.
The intelligence officer vowed that his command would not let Samarra be held hostage by terrorists. But U.S. forces are now operating under local political constraints that make it "unlikely, if not impossible, that U.S. troops will be storming Iraqi cities or razing neighborhoods," says one Washington-based official, who adds:
"The interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has an effective veto. And U.S. assaults on Iraqi cities are not part of Allawi's strategy" of co-opting Baathist holdouts and other insurgents with amnesty offers.
Allawi does authorize periodic U.S. airstrikes or other "surgical" operations against foreign terrorists in Fallujah, to warn the townspeople that "the sword" could still fall on them if they do not oust the jihadists themselves and come to terms with Baghdad. And U.S. units will respond vigorously when attacked, as they did in firefights in Ramadi in recent days.
Turning over greater responsibility to Iraqis -- resisted in substance by the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority of L. Paul Bremer -- is both right and necessary. And no one can express unhappiness about the overall decline in U.S. military casualties that has followed the change in tactics and the June 28 transfer of political responsibility. July's U.S. death toll is expected to be less than half of the April figure.
But casualties among Iraqi security forces and civilians continue to run at appalling levels -- probably three times as great as those of U.S. forces in July, according to journalists in Baghdad. It cannot be long before Iraqis question the effectiveness and morality of tactical changes that appear to leave the insurgents relatively free to strike at them while American forces hunker down.
This is not the whole story. The American attacks on the Shiite militia of Moqtada Sadr ended in large part because they had succeeded. They reduced the rebel forces to a shambles, killing an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 of them. Iraq's south has been quiet since.
Bush can point to this and other advances in Iraq as he attempts to shift on the campaign trail from grim policy assertions that Iraq can be won to confident political declarations that Iraq is being won.
But he must neither give the impression nor indulge in the reality of countenancing an electoral-season truce that would inhibit American troops from taking the war to the insurgents. The terrorists have used the Fallujah respite to regroup and spread their tentacles elsewhere. Real success in Iraq cannot be built on that pattern.