The situation in Iraq is deteriorating. That is not a popular view, but it is hard to dispute. The government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi cannot claim to control the entire country, and insurgents are stepping up attacks in an attempt to delay elections planned for January. Failure to hold that vote will undermine the legitimacy of any government in Baghdad. There are many prerequisites for the stabilization of the situation in Iraq, but an absolutely essential first step is acknowledging the grim reality on the ground.

It was widely anticipated that handing over authority in Iraq from the United States-led occupying forces to a local government would stem the fighting in that country. That hope was misguided. Since Mr. Allawi’s government took office last summer, violence has intensified. Some of the attackers are Ba’athists and supporters of the former regime; others are disaffected Sunni Muslims, who have lost their privileges with the fall of Saddam Hussein; still others are foreign terrorists who have come to Iraq to do battle with “the Great Satan” and its allies.

Yet many, including U.S. President George W. Bush, insist that the situation is improving. In his weekly radio address last weekend, Mr. Bush applauded the “steady progress” that has been made in Iraq, noting that the handover of sovereignty took place ahead of schedule, that nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped Iraqi security personnel are working in Iraq to restore peace, and that national elections would take place next year. He conceded that violence persists, and even anticipated an upsurge as that ballot approaches, but Mr. Bush remains convinced that the trends are positive.

His optimism is bolstered by that of Mr. Allawi, who, standing next to Mr. Bush last week at the White House, maintained that Baghdad was “very good and safe.” Mr. Allawi blamed the American media for ignoring the progress that has been made in his country and for painting an overly dismal picture of developments. Instead, he emphasized the schools and hospitals that have been reopened, the new jobs that have been created, and the thousands of Iraqis who have volunteered to join the police and army. He vowed to hold elections as scheduled, noting that a vote could be held today in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Others are not so sure. Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded that the insurgency was becoming more violent as guerrillas try to force the cancellation of the January vote. His comments were echoed by Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior U.S. military commander in the Middle East, who also said he anticipates continued fighting up to the elections.

Their concerns are based on new reports that reveal the full extent of the insurgency. According to Kroll Security International, a private security firm that is working for the U.S. government, attacks against U.S. troops, security forces and private contractors are greater than reported by the U.S. military. The attacks now number almost 70 a day — in contrast to the 40 or 50 that occurred on average before the June handover of power. Worse, the Kroll figures show that the unrest is spreading beyond the “Sunni triangle” and is affecting parts of the country that have been peaceful. Moreover, the targets are not just allied military forces, but Iraqi security forces and civilians, international organizations and donors, and others trying to help rebuild a country wracked by two wars and a decade of international sanctions.

Regaining control of the entire country is essential. Contrary to the opinion of some officials, an election in which only three-quarters of the Iraqi people vote is not good enough. In addition to making a mockery of claims of genuine democracy — to say nothing of the authority and legitimacy of the resulting government — the inability of individuals in violence-prone areas to vote guarantees that they will continue to be angry, disaffected and without representation. In other words, they will have every reason to continue to fight.

Iraq’s future may well be determined in the next few months. Without stability and security, the country will not be able hold the elections that will lay the foundation for a peaceful and democratic future. A renewed international commitment to Iraq’s future will provide both hope and the tangible prerequisites for peace: in particular, the security forces needed to battle the insurgents. If the Iraqi people know that they have support, then they can build their own future. But the first step is an honest assessment of the current situation. The clash between unrealistic optimism and the bitter truth in Iraq could undermine support for the Iraqi people and their government in Baghdad.

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