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May 10, 2004

By Katherine McIntire Peters

Responding to the growing outrage over the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners being held by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, President Bush said last Thursday, "We'll find out the truth."

But truth has proved elusive in Iraq, particularly in the past few weeks. And proximity to events there apparently offers little advantage in finding it. Consider what unfolded in Fallujah over the past 10 days. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Conway negotiated an end to a bloody standoff with insurgents in the city by agreeing to turn over security for the city to Iraqi generals who served in Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims. Those are the very troops U.S. forces sought to eliminate in the war and those most feared by Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite Muslims and Kurds.

Military officials in Iraq and at the Pentagon insisted that U.S. forces were not "retreating" from Fallujah, although that was a distinction lost on reporters on the ground who watched as Marines abandoned hard-won positions and withdrew two battalions from the city. In the meantime, television news footage showed Iraqi Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, the former Saddam loyalist tapped by Conway to lead the new Fallujah Brigade, entering the city in a triumphal procession while armed young men danced in the streets holding signs proclaiming victory. Saleh and other members of the Fallujah Brigade soon declared that there were no foreign fighters in Fallujah -- news to the Marines who had spent the previous three weeks in deadly combat with an insurgency that military officials had described as being supported by foreign fighters.

The Marines' nonretreat from Fallujah and deal with Saleh took civilian officials in Baghdad and Pentagon higher-ups by surprise. Military leaders in Baghdad and Washington insisted publicly that no deal had been finalized, and after more careful vetting, administration officials announced that Saleh would in fact command only a battalion in the new security unit, not the entire brigade as previously planned. That was small comfort to Shiites and Kurds, who are beginning to wonder publicly just how different the security forces in the new Iraq will be from those used by Saddam Hussein.

Anyone looking to the Coalition Provisional Authority press information office for insight into the situation in Fallujah or elsewhere in Iraq would be disappointed. In fact, it would be easy to think the CPA is operating in an entirely different country from the one most Americans read about in the newspapers or see depicted on television.

On May 2, when graphic images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi inmates were circulating around the world, when government officials were contradicting each other about what was happening in Fallujah, and when 11 soldiers were killed in four separate attacks, the CPA put out a press release with the following headline: "To Honor the Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (May Peace be Upon Him), the Coalition Gives Soccer Balls out to Children." The next day the CPA had more good news: "Baghdad Beautification Comes to Al Rashid District."

One wants to believe there is good news in Iraq, but when the CPA issues press releases quoting 12-year-old boys saying, "Thank you, American Army" for the opening of a recreation facility while the president is forced to apologize to the world for images of American behavior "that made us sick to our stomachs," something is terribly wrong.