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Leading article: An electoral prism that distorts the abject reality

America's mission in Iraq has been manipulated at every turn to suit the US domestic political agenda. The initial military push to Baghdad, the much-vaunted national elections, the handover to a supposedly independent Iraqi administration: all these events were timed to suit not the interests of the Iraqi people but the Bush administration. Each one was stage-managed to convince the public in America that progress was being made.

In the light of this, we are entitled to treat the latest announcement from the US - that Iraq will be ready to take charge of its own security within 12 to 18 months - with extreme scepticism. It is clear what is going on here. Facing the prospect of heavy Republican losses in the mid-term Congressional elections, inflicted by an electorate despairing over Iraq, President Bush has decided on drastic action.

Yesterday's announcement - tantamount to a timetable for withdrawal - is intended to reassure American voters that the end is in sight. Ninety American troops have died this month. October 2006 is on course to be the most costly month for the US since the invasion. Republicans need US voters to go to the polls with some more positive news about Iraq in their minds. It is telling that, in the present context, withdrawal is the most positive news that can be engineered.

Make no mistake, this decision has not been made because the conditions on the ground in Iraq are improving. On the contrary, the carnage is growing daily as sectarian militias step up their attacks and the insurgency against foreign troops becomes ever more ferocious. Nor is there any evidence that the Iraqi army or police force will be ready to stand on their own against this onslaught in 18 months' time.

The head of US forces in Iraq, General George Casey, claimed yesterday that the build-up of Iraq's security forces was 75 per cent complete. This seems hopelessly over-optimistic. Only last week, Iraqi soldiers fled the town of Amarah when two rival Shia factions began to trade gunfire. Elsewhere, the security forces have been infiltrated by the very militias they are supposed to be subduing. The inhabitants of Baghdad are as terrified of uniformed soldiers as they are of militiamen.

For the past three years, the Bush administration has promised that security responsibility would be handed over to the Iraqi government when it was ready, and not before. Yet now we are told Iraq will be forced to take care of its own security in 18 months, come what may. It is quite likely that the situation in Iraq will actually be worse in a year and a half. If the US is going to set itself a timetable so unrelated to conditions on the ground, why does it not simply withdraw now?

There has been a lot of impatient talk in Washington of late about getting the Iraqi government to "step up to the plate". The inference is that Nouri al-Maliki's administration is deliberately stalling in taking over its security duties. But this only emphasises how detached from reality the Bush administration has become. Iraq's government is weak because it is perceived to be the puppet of the United States. And this points to a deeper truth. Foreign troops in Iraq are seen not as liberators, but occupiers. Neither the Bush administration nor indeed our own government has been able to grasp this most basic of facts. This explains why so many of their expectations of progress have crumbled to dust.

Now, once again, reality is being distorted to suit the purposes of those who brought this catastrophe upon Iraq in the first place. The latest flurry of diplomatic activity in Washington owes nothing to the security situation in Iraq, and everything to the dire need to salvage Republican votes across America next month.