A US general in Baghdad called Iraq a "work of art" in progress on Thursday in one of the most extraordinary attempts by the US military leadership to put a positive spin on the worsening violence.
On a day in which 49 people were killed or found dead around the country, Major General William Caldwell, the chief military spokesman, argued that Iraq was in transition, a process that was "not always a pleasant thing to watch."
"Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture. Blobs of paint become paintings which inspire," Caldwell told journalists in Baghdad's fortified green zone.
"The final test of our efforts will not be the isolated incidents that you report daily, but the country that the Iraqis build," he added.
Perceptions of how the war is going have become a central factor in next Tuesday's congressional elections, which could determine US President George W. Bush's freedom of maneuver in his last two years in office. Caldwell was speaking after a series of public disagreements between Washington and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, over proposed benchmarks for his government's performance, and over a recent US raid on a Shia district of Baghdad.
Maliki had also ordered the removal of some US military checkpoints in the capital set up in the hunt for a missing US soldier, who was identified yesterday as Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, an Iraqi-American working as an interpreter who was seized by gunmen last month while visiting his Iraqi wife in Baghdad.
Caldwell described friction between the Baghdad government and Washington as "misunderstandings." He said that the death toll in the conflict had dropped by nearly a quarter in the past week, but conceded that last month as a whole had been worse than earlier months. The Associated Press counted 1,272 reported Iraqi deaths last month alone.