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The way forward in Iraq

IRAQ’S SUNNI, SHIITE AND KURDISH leaders have finally found an issue on which they agree: a timetable for the U.S. to leave Iraq. That’s fine. They have also agreed it’s permissible for insurgents to kill U.S. soldiers. That’s dreadful. But it’s also the realization of prewar fears that if the aftermath of the invasion went poorly, American troops would be viewed not as liberators but as occupiers.

The politicians did not spell out an exact date for U.S. troops to leave. That may be the reason the White House so far has not linked them to filmmaker Michael Moore, as it did 10 days ago in smearing decorated combat veteran Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) when he called for a immediate withdrawal of troops.

Although President Bush long ago declared victory in Iraq -- remember that “Mission Accomplished” banner? -- both the fighting and the administration’s campaign against its critics continue at a torrid pace. The death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq topped 2,100 in the same week that Vice President Dick Cheney called some critics of the war “dishonest and reprehensible.”

Like the vice president, we welcome an “energetic debate” about the war and its aims. But we reject his attempt to set its terms. Our view continues to be that the administration should announce specific goals and timetables -- and mete out the consequences if they are not met.

On the ground in Iraq

When the Iraqis began meeting last weekend in Cairo (much safer than anywhere in Iraq) a suicide bomber back home killed 36 Shiite mourners in a funeral procession. Hours earlier, a car bomb killed 13 people in a market near Baghdad. The previous day, suicide bombers killed at least 80 people at two mosques. This is not what Pentagon officials mean when they say they see progress in Iraq.

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Murtha was right to say U.S. forces in Iraq “have become the target.” Gen. George W. Casey, the top commander in Iraq, made that assessment two months ago, saying the presence of an occupying army was “one of the elements that fuels the insurgency.” Yet Casey has also predicted “fairly substantial reductions” of troops next year if the December parliamentary elections go smoothly and if Iraqi security forces continue to increase. The number of American troops has risen in the last few months from 138,000 to nearly 160,000.

Despite the periodic increases in troop strength, the insurgency shows no sign of waning. The number of trained Iraqi troops also fluctuates; earlier this year, U.S. generals said three units had attained the highest state of readiness, but months later they downgraded the number to one.

Murtha’s call to get U.S. troops out of Iraq within six months is off the mark. Setting a date would give insurgents the opportunity of waiting out famously impatient Americans. Yet it is clear that the U.S. military presence in Iraq cannot be open-ended. The administration needs to set specific goals for progress in Iraq and timetables to meet them, especially in such essential areas as oil exports, electricity supply and, above all, trained Iraqi soldiers and police.

A commitment without end makes no more sense now than during the Vietnam War. A premature withdrawal is likely to exacerbate the civil war that is already underway. But staying in the absence of progress is lunacy; it is not a refusal to “cut and run.” The Senate this month finally got around to passing a resolution to require quarterly progress reports on the war from the administration. It also urged that 2006 be the year of a transition to Iraqi sovereignty that would allow the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

On the ground in America

The vote shows that members of Congress are feeling the heat from constituents upset by a $200-billion bill and thousands of deaths. Iraq should be part of the debate during next year’s congressional elections. And part of that discussion should be what the U.S. knew (and when) before it went to war.

Last Sunday’s Times report on the Iraqi informant with the apt nickname “Curveball” was a devastating portrait of the deeply flawed prewar intelligence constantly promoted by the administration as it lined up the tanks, planes and troops in 2003. The report quoted German intelligence officials as saying they warned U.S. colleagues of the unreliability of Curveball, a defector who was critical to the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein possessed biological weapons. If those red flags did not get to top officials, who hid them? Who’s accountable?

Cheney’s speech on Monday worked in the usual reference to 9/11 in the same sentence as Hussein. Yet once again it’s necessary to point out that Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. The vice president also cited the prewar declarations from many nations that Hussein probably had the most devastating weapons. But he neglected to say that Hussein at the eleventh hour allowed U.N. weapons inspectors into the country, that the initial inspections turned up nothing and that the administration refused to wait for more complete searches.

Only after the successful military campaign did the thorough search occur; as everyone now knows, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. That was the selling point for the war. Later justifications of removing the dictator and transforming the nation into a beacon of democracy shining throughout the Middle East were runners-up in the explanation derby.

The administration used too few troops for postwar reconstruction, misunderstood how occupation forces would be viewed, did not dispatch enough who understood the language and culture and refused to listen to those experienced in nation building.

The world understood the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the source of the 9/11 attacks. The Iraq war has squandered the goodwill. A survey of 16 nations in June found the U.S. “remains broadly disliked” in most countries surveyed, with the Muslim world “quite negative.” Even more ominous was another survey that found 42% of Americans agreeing that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally” and let other countries do as best they can.

Americans need to understand that we need help from other nations and are more likely to get it if we offer assistance as well. The longer suicide bombers devastate Iraq and U.S. troops die with little signs of progress, the greater will be the cry to withdraw no matter the result. The U.S. needs to tell Iraqis we will be gone before too much longer, although we won’t yet say just when. And the administration needs to shore up its own credibility with Americans to maintain their support for this nation’s engagement in world affairs.


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