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The truth about Iraq

President Bush and other administration officials insist the war in Iraq is going well, and the president has blamed the media "filter" for giving the American people a falsely negative impression of events there. In truth, though, the administration's own private assessment of the war is much gloomier than its confident public claims.

The New York Times reports that the classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the White House paints a dark picture of political and military conditions in Iraq. The document, compiled earlier this summer by the administration's intelligence and security experts, raises the possibility of all-out civil war among Iraq's clashing political and religious blocs. Even its best-case scenario envisions an extended period of instability as U.S. forces battle a spreading insurgency.

The president needs to start being honest with the public about the status of the war, and about the realistic options for building a stable Iraq and bringing our troops home. Otherwise, this administration's credibility _ already damaged by the trumped-up prewar claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein _ will be shredded beyond repair.

The negative assessment at the heart of the National Intelligence Estimate is not new. U.S. generals and State Department experts warned before the start of the war that restoring Iraq's political and economic stability would be more difficult, and require a larger and lengthier U.S. commitment, than removing Hussein from power. But the president and his war council ignored those warnings and punished some of the officials who dared to issue them.

Today, more than 16 months after President Bush declared major combat operations over, attacks on American forces are more frequent than at any other point in the war. U.S. troops, along with the undermanned and inadequately trained forces representing the interim Iraqi government, have abandoned several major cities and left them under the control of radical insurgents. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government has little support, and the country is not even close to being stable enough to allow for the national elections scheduled for early next year.

President Bush hasn't acknowledged those realities, much less proposed a plausible and honorable way out. In contrast, Democratic challenger John Kerry is blunt about the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. Last week, he called on the president to "give the American people the truth, not a fantasy world of spin." But Kerry, too, has failed to produce a realistic exit strategy.

Mr. Bush: Claiming Iraq is free and stable doesn't make it so. More than 1,000 American troops already have died in this war. The number of Iraqi civilian casualties _ and the number of Iraqis alienated from the United States and the Allawi government _ also grows daily. Yet you offer only more of the same.

Mr. Kerry: Claiming that a new president will be able to win broader international support for our occupation in Iraq sounds like little more than wishful thinking. The other governments capable of providing meaningful help want no part of this war. Rather than simply cataloging the Bush administration's many mistakes up to now, you have an obligation to lay out a serious plan for moving forward.

If anything, the National Intelligence Estimate, which was completed before the recent spike in violence, understated the fix in which our forces find themselves. Senators from both parties, meeting last week to review the Bush administration's hasty plans to shift $3-billion in Iraq funds from reconstruction projects to security, had an even harsher assessment. "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "It is now in the zone of dangerous."