Citing a new classified intelligence report predicting serious troubles ahead for Iraq, John F. Kerry yesterday accused President Bush of living in a "fantasy world of spin" and refusing to speak honestly about mounting casualties, indiscriminate killings and chaos in Iraq. "Stability and security seem further and further away," Kerry said.
The White House, which had planned a vigorous election-season defense of its Iraq strategy next week, was forced into the debate yesterday. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the intelligence assessment "states the obvious," and he dismissed skeptics of the Iraq policy as "pessimists and naysayers." Bush, at a campaign stop, repeated his generally upbeat assessment of Iraq: "Freedom is on the march."
The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community and written in July, said Iraq's prospects for stability and self-governance over the next 18 months were, at best, "tenuous," according to U.S. government officials who have read it.
The 60-page document produced by the National Intelligence Council set out three possible scenarios for the next year and a half in Iraq, the worst of which portrayed the country as descending into civil war. The assessment, which analyzed political, economic and security trends, blamed the mounting problems on Iraq's having no institutions and traditions upon which to build representative government and on resilient opponents, including Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, foreign terrorists and common criminals.
Revelation of the report's existence came on a day when Kerry used some of the toughest language of the campaign to paint a markedly different portrait of Iraq than the one Bush offers audiences.
The president, whom polls show a majority of Americans trust more than Kerry to handle Iraq, talks frequently of how the United States is "making progress" stabilizing the war-torn nation and setting the stage for its first democratic elections in January. Democrats point out that Bush rarely, if ever, talks about casualties, the spread of terrorism, kidnappings and beheadings, and the strength of anti-American insurgents in and around Baghdad. Instead, Bush focuses on steady resolve and the broader war on terrorism.
Bush did not mention the intelligence estimate -- first reported Wednesday by the New York Times -- as he made three campaign appearances in Minnesota yesterday. But he again emphasized progress. "There's a lot of violence in Iraq -- I understand that," he told a rally in Rochester. "But Iraq now has a strong prime minister, national council, and national elections are scheduled in January. The world is becoming more free."
Kerry, speaking to thousands of National Guardsmen in Las Vegas two days after Bush addressed the same group, said the administration's strategy in Iraq is failing and that the White House is trying to hide that reality from the American people.
"The president stood right here where I am standing and did not even acknowledge that more than 1,000 men and women have lost their lives in Iraq," Kerry said. "He did not tell that you with each passing day, we're seeing more chaos, more violence, indiscriminate killing. He did not tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are getting bolder -- that Pentagon officials report that entire regions of Iraq are now in the hands of terrorists and extremists."
Kerry has been trying to turn Iraq into a referendum on Bush's honesty overall. Bush has "failed the fundamental test of leadership: he failed to tell you the truth," Kerry said. "The hard truth -- and it is a hard truth -- is that our president has made serious mistakes in taking us to war."
Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) joined a small, but growing, chorus of GOP voices sounding grave concerns about Iraq, comments that tend to support Kerry's view. "We've got to be honest with ourselves," Hagel said. "The worst thing we can do is hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion we're winning. Right now, we are not winning. Things are getting worse."
Despite the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Kerry has had a difficult time gaining a political foothold on the issue, which divides Americans like few others. A new poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that Bush enjoys a 52 to 40 percent edge on Iraq. "Unfortunately for Kerry, he's been unable to tap into that unhappiness, especially on Iraq," director Andrew Kohut said.
The 3,500 National Guardsmen at the conference in Las Vegas gave Bush seven standing ovations, but Kerry received polite -- but only occasionally enthusiastic -- applause. Kerry's biggest applause lines occurred when he talked about new benefits for those who serve in the National Guard.
Kerry has run into two problems of his own making, Democrats say: He voted to authorize the war in 2002; and he has yet to detail a markedly different strategy than Bush's for ending the conflict.
Yesterday, Vice President Cheney used Kerry's Senate record against him. "Today, while speaking to the National Guard Association, John Kerry said that our troops deserve no less than the best," Cheney said in a campaign stop in Reno, Nev. "But I am stunned by the audacity of his statement -- Senator Kerry voted to send our troops into combat, and then denied them the support they needed once they were at war. We need a president who will back our troops 100 percent, and that's exactly what we've got in George W. Bush."
A White House spokesman yesterday declined to release the July National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, citing its classification.
Government officials, however, said the report identified serious problems in recruiting and training an effective Iraqi army and police force, establishing a competent central government and rebuilding significant Iraqi infrastructure. The report states in its "key judgments" section that the majority of Iraqis support self-governance -- without U.S. involvement.
Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, released a statement yesterday saying he had reviewed the estimate, calling it "a fair, well-written piece. Any honest assessment would recognize that the next couple of years will be very challenging for the Iraqi government and for the U.S."
White House spokesmen and other administration officials yesterday said the document did not offer any new insights. "Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people have proven the pessimists wrong every step of the way," McClellan said. "There are areas where difficulties remain, and there are ongoing security threats . . . but the Iraqi people are determined to build a free and peaceful future."
Administration officials plan to use next week's U.S. visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as the centerpiece of an effort to showcase progress toward democracy.
The new NIE is the same type of broad intelligence assessment conducted in October 2002 that concluded Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction, a finding presented by the administration as one of the main justifications for war.
No such weapons have been found, and the 2002 NIE has in the past year been at the center of calls for revamping and improving U.S. intelligence.
More recent intelligence assessments on Iraq after Hussein appear to be more perceptive.
In January 2003, three months before the war began, for example, the CIA predicted that Iraq would likely split along ethnic and religious lines and that creating a representative democracy would be "long-term, difficult and problematic."
Agency officials told the White House that there would be three to four months of goodwill toward U.S. troops before the Iraqi population turned hostile toward what it would see as an occupying force, according to a senior intelligence official who took part in the discussion.
VandeHei reported from Las Vegas. Staff writers Mike Allen, traveling with Bush, and Lisa Rein, traveling with Cheney, contributed to this report.