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Down for the count

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Our fascination with counting bodies as a measure of how the war is going in Iraq is macabre. Worse, it is a false measure, a number without context, a point on a scale that signifies something different to every single person who reads it. But in the weird, dimensionless theater of operations that is this conflict, today we have no true way of knowing whether things are getting better or worse, whether progress is being made or defeat is imminent.

There are no frontlines whose push across a map might signify "gains." There is no visible enemy whose numbers are clearly shrinking (or growing), as an index of when the "final shot" might be fired; only a shadowy insurgent force seemingly capable of protracting the bloodletting for decades to come. So, in that vacuum of information, we cling to body counts. But they are misleading. We say, for example, that as of March 23, 2,319 Americans have died while fighting in Iraq.

But recently, we learned that at least another 10,000 have been wounded so badly that they will never return to combat, and have been shipped to hospitals and rehab centers in Europe and the United States. If they die there of their injuries, those deaths aren't added to the Iraq totals. Nor are the numbers who are discharged for mental and stress-related disabilities, whose lives and families are being sacrificed, as well.

And our body counts of civilian deaths (like our definitions of exactly who "civilians" are) have become such broad ranges of possibilities as to have no practical meaning: "Estimates are that between 30,000 and 100,000 collateral deaths have occurred during the Iraqi fighting." Isn't that a mighty big difference? Where did those other 70,000 civilians go? Or doesn't it matter?

All of which explains why I was not sure whether to laugh or cry when the Bush administration made its big push last week to reassure us all that things are getting better and better every day, in every way, "over there" in Iraq. Dick Cheney (yet again) was confidently quoted as knowing the insurgency is in its "final throes." Bush cautioned us that with victory in our grasp, we need "only to stay the course."

I don't have a secret cache of information that tells me they are wrong (or correct). But I do have this despairing sense, deep in my gut, that tells me they don't, either. Of course, one objective measure we do have for how the war is going is the public's confidence in the men and woman (can't forget Condoleezza) who tell us it's going well. Unfortunately, as the voters' approval for this inept mob has headed south, it has taken along with it a whole other inventory of casualties.

Many of the victims of the Iraq war may ultimately turn out to be Mexican and Central American immigrants seeking to escape poverty in their homelands by coming here to work. This is because Bush's recent disastrous polling results have emboldened the lunatic fringe of his own party in Congress to challenge him on one of his few good ideas: immigration reform.

The next few weeks will see the outcome of this dramatic challenge to a sitting Republican president by the legislative leadership of that same party. It presents the Democrats with an incredible opportunity in that rarest of occurrences: a year in which control of at least one chamber of Congress might actually be wrested away from those in possession of every bit of wile, cunning and influence imaginable. As the president's credibility has been wounded, possibly lethally, by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, many of his partisans are rushing to distance themselves from him and his initiatives. They beat him on the Dubai Ports fiasco. They are resisting his efforts to finance Katrina reconstruction.

An easy one for some is to tackle his guest-worker proposal. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (who has presidential droolings of his own) has broken with Bush on this, instead aligning with what conservative columnist David Brooks calls a branch of the GOP intent on "walking off a cliff on the subject of immigration." These are the guys who worry about Mexican immigrants being slow to assimilate, but who pass laws (as in Arizona) that make it illegal to teach in any language other than English in public schools, thereby guaranteeing that immigrant kids will lag at least two years behind their classmates in math, science, history and the rest.

The problem for the Republicans is that there is another wing to their party, one that has made definite inroads into traditional Democratic voting blocs among Hispanics. Those gains in Florida, Texas and California were led by small and large business interests within the GOP who are eager to expand the Latino consumer market, as well as the labor supply represented by immigrants.

Bush had hoped to serve that wing's interests with his guest-worker program. Frist and his anti-immigrant rhetoric threaten that goal. The Democrats could benefit, but only if they act responsibly. Someone has to act like a grownup when the kids start squabbling. It won't be enough to sit back and enjoy watching the fight from the sidelines.

Jerry Ortiz y Pino is a regular columnist for the Weekly Alibi, Albuquerque's second-largest newspaper.

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