President Bush and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of Iraq vowed in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday that Iraq will hold free elections as scheduled in January, even though Bush acknowledged the "persistent violence" in some parts of the country and Allawi conceded that the elections "may not be perfect."
Similarly, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke openly for the first time Thursday about the possibility that the elections might be held only in parts of Iraq.
"Let's say you tried to have an election, and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places you couldn't because the violence was too great," Rumsfeld said at a hearing on Capitol Hill. "Well nothing's perfect in life."
But on a day when both Republicans and Democrats used Allawi to reinforce starkly opposed campaign messages about Iraq, Bush and his ally presented, overall, a rosy picture of the country. In contrast, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, seized on the visit to paint a bleak portrait of Iraq and a Bush administration in disarray.
By the end of the day, it was clear that Allawi's visit to Washington, his first as Iraq's interim prime minister, was not simply a state visit but a politically charged moment with the debate on the course of the war intensifying.
"I stand here today as the prime minister of a country emerging finally from dark ages of violence, aggression, corruption and greed," Allawi told a joint session of Congress before his appearance at the White House, using language that echoed Bush's campaign speeches about Iraq. He offered a simple, "Thank you, America," for driving Saddam Hussein from power.
In the Rose Garden two hours later, Allawi and Bush continually cited progress in a nation that has been plagued by an emboldened insurgency, suicide bombings and the recent beheadings of two American hostages. "You can understand it's tough and still be optimistic," Bush said. "You can understand how hard it is and believe we'll succeed."
Allawi said in the Rose Garden that every day he receives a threat on his life and that in the last month he has learned of four conspiracies to kill him.
Bush, in his enthusiasm to portray progress in Iraq, said polls asking Iraqis whether the country was on the right or wrong track showed more positive results than similar polls in the United States.
"I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America," Bush said, chuckling. "It's pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future."
A Kerry campaign spokesman, Joe Lockhart, responded that Bush must be "unhinged from reality" to cite such a poll.
Kerry, at a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, said that Allawi was not making sense, pointing in particular to his assertion to Congress that the terrorists in Iraq were on the defensive.
"I think the prime minister is, obviously, contradicting his own statement of a few days ago where he said the terrorists are pouring into the country," Kerry said. "The prime minister and the president are here, obviously, to put their best face on the policy. But the fact is that the CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story."
Bush in turn used his 47-minute appearance with Allawi to implicitly criticize what his campaign has called Kerry's many flip-flops on Iraq, although the president did not use Kerry's name. The president said that people who sent a "mixed signal" on Iraq could embolden terrorists.
The president also said that he and Allawi expected violence to escalate as the January elections draw closer, and that if the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, asked him for more troops to secure the nation ahead of the election, "I would listen to him."