In a tale of two cities, President Bush yesterday heralded progress in northern Mosul and southern Najaf as new models for rebuilding Iraq.
But last Friday, Iraq's government imposed emergency law and a curfew in Sunni-dominated Mosul and throughout Ninevah province, and a senior U.S. official in Baghdad yesterday referred to the city of about 1.7 million as "nasty Mosul."
In Najaf, militia fighters of the two rival religious parties that control the Shiite holy city recently clashed in street battles. A few days ago, former prime minister Ayad Allawi was attacked during a visit by an angry, rock-throwing mob that some Iraqis charge was backed by a militia -- and that Allawi called an assassination attempt.
The two important and politically charged cities showcase signs of progress for Iraq, as Bush described, but also security problems and other pressing difficulties for the U.S. mission and the new Iraqi government.
Since insurgents gained control of much of Mosul late last year, Bush said U.S. and Iraqi forces have "killed, captured or cleared out" many of the extremists -- reopening the way for reconstruction. In a Nov. 19 gun battle with U.S. troops, eight suspected al Qaeda operatives died in a Mosul residence, some by blowing themselves up.
Conditions had improved enough that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Mosul last month to launch the first Provisional Reconstruction Team, the new interagency approach to reconstruction -- although the city is still so volatile that she flew by Black Hawk helicopter to the U.S. military headquarters and never got into the city.
Bush also pointed out that more than half of the voters in Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, voted in the October referendum for the constitution -- although he did not mention that 56 percent of voters rejected proposed laws for a new Iraq. Just 10 percent more in that region would have doomed the constitution and forced Iraqis to go to the polls Dec. 15 not to elect a permanent government, as scheduled, but to select another interim government.
Since the 2004 crisis over the militia takeover of Shiism's holiest shrine in Najaf, Bush cited progress on rebuilding the police force and refurbishing schools, restoring water supplies and reopening a soccer stadium.
Religious pilgrims are visiting the city again, he said, although he failed to note that vast numbers are from Iran. U.S. officials express privately concern about Iran's influence on Najaf's clerics and politics.
Some Iraqis challenged Bush's assertions. In Najaf, Rafid Farhan, 33, said security is now controlled by Moqtada Sadr, a young cleric and militia leader, and not U.S. troops or the Iraqi government.
As part of his latest efforts to counter criticism over U.S. Iraq policy, Bush said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that Iraqis have made "amazing progress" since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. "They've gone from living under the boot of a brutal tyrant to liberation, to free elections, to a democratic constitution," he said.
But others involved in assessing Iraq argue the president's portrayal is, at best, too rosy.
"Progress is running far behind Iraqi expectations in virtually every area," said Wayne White, head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005 and now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. "In their view, most Iraqis are not seeing 'amazing progress.' All too many of them live in constant danger, with less electricity in many areas than under Saddam Hussein."
Bush conceded problems with corruption at both the local and national levels as well as waste in reconstruction, and he said the United States had adjusted its efforts. But he did not get into the scope of the problem, which has increasingly alarmed Iraqis and U.S. officials.
In an interview yesterday, Stuart Bowen, the U.S. inspector general for Iraq, said corruption is "pervasive and very serious, particularly within the Iraqi ministries of defense and interior but not confined to the two offices." In one case under investigation, more than $1 billion is basically missing, he said.
Complicating the issue are new revelations about U.S. corruption in Iraq, with 50 open cases against U.S. citizens and three recent arrest warrants issued. "A lot that happened is still secret and below the bar," he said.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad contributed to this report.