Many of us who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years ago are uncertain about what to do now. We want U.S. troops to leave as soon as possible, but we dont want American withdrawal to be a selfish or cowardly act that makes matters worse. We wish to help the Iraqi people, not make their suffering greater.
The Iraqi people are telling us in no uncertain terms that they want American troops out. In early April tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad and other cities to demand U.S. military withdrawal. The political parties opposed to U.S. military involvement received the highest vote totals in the January elections in Iraq. An opinion poll at that time found almost 65 percent of Iraqis in favor of U.S. withdrawal "now" or after an "elected government is in place."
Large majorities of Iraqis - 69 percent of Shiites and 82 percent of Sunnis - want U.S. soldiers to get out of Iraq quickly, according to an Abu Dhabi TV/Zogby International poll earlier this year. Over half of Sunnis considered insurgent attacks to be a legitimate resistance to U.S. presence. This follows polling last year that showed that 71 percent of Iraqis considered U.S.-led forces "occupiers" rather than "liberators."
Americans also support a timeline for withdrawal. According to a bipartisan poll conducted in early April, 69 percent of Americans surveyed (including 62 percent of Republicans) agreed that "it is important that the Bush administration have a clear plan today for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq."
WE ARE TOLD by President Bush that U.S. troops cant leave Iraq until there is security, but this is a false choice. Our continuing military presence is a major source of insecurity. The president says that "freedom is on the march," but Iraq cannot be free while it remains under the boot of foreign occupation. The best way to help Iraq is to develop a responsible U.S. exit strategy that provides increased support for Iraqi sovereignty and stability.
The Bush administration should take the following steps: 1) announce a timetable for U.S. exit and immediately begin an orderly military disengagement that leaves behind no permanent American bases, 2) support Iraqi efforts to re-establish their own security forces and national army, 3) launch a concerted effort to bring in international support (which will become more likely when U.S. forces leave), and 4) provide massive economic assistance, with control of reconstruction in the hands of Iraqis rather than U.S. contractors.
We recognize the risk of civil violence in Iraq, but we also know that the continued U.S. military presence seems to have worsened that risk. The longer U.S. forces remain, the greater the likelihood that they will be drawn into taking sides in a civil war that our presence will exacerbate but will not be able to quell. The presence of U.S. troops is becoming a crutch by which some Iraqi factions are seeking to remain in power and avoid the political compromises that are necessary to assure stable self-government.
There are security alternatives in Iraq. The U.S. could work with the U.N. Security Council to establish an international stabilization force to assist with security after occupation forces withdraw. This would be a temporary force, approved by the Iraqi government, for limited protective deployments in Kirkuk and other potential hot spots. Its mission would be civilian protection, not combat against insurgents.
These suggested policies entail risks, as do all options for Iraq. There are no easy solutions or guarantees against further violence. But the proposed options provide answers to the most pressing challenges in Iraq. If pursued with vigor and consistency, they could provide a viable strategy for assuring Iraqi stability and a responsible U.S. exit. This is what we owe Iraq, to get out of the way and help the Iraqi people achieve genuine freedom and stability.
David Cortright is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and a research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.