For better or worse, it is time for U.S. troops to keave Iraq

Freedom Newspapers

A poignant indicator of how the American occupation is going two years after the initial invasion of Iraq came Wednesday. Iraq’s National Assembly met, a sign that the new transitional government chosen in the inspiring elections of Jan. 30 is beginning to govern. But the meeting was shaken by a volley of mortar fire that fell only a few hundred yards short of the assembly hall.

Baghdad is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world, rocked by daily violence. Mohammed Ghazi Umron, a truck driver who voted enthusiastically Jan. 30, told the Christian Science Monitor the roads leading from Baghdad range from “bad, but I haven’t heard of any drivers being killed there in a few weeks” to “very, very dangerous. We try not to go past Abu Ghraib.”

The assembly meeting Wednesday failed to name a prime minister, president and other top officials. Shiite and Kurd members, who together control about two-thirds of the assembly but have been unable so far to agree on top officials, said Friday they hope to reach agreement by the next meeting, scheduled for late this week. Numerous news stories say ordinary Iraqis, who experienced something close to euphoria in the days following the election, are impatient that after seven weeks the elected politicians can’t get their act together.

Their inability to do so, however, reflects abiding divisions in a country created arbitrarily by British colonialists after World War I. Shiites, about 60 percent of the population, are divided between those who want an Islamic theocracy and those who want a more secular government. The Kurds in the north want to maintain the de facto autonomy they achieved (after much bloodshed) under Saddam Hussein. The Sunnis, who ruled ruthlessly during Saddam’s era, are divided among active insurgents, those who fear Shiite dominance, and those seeking to cooperate with the new order.

Violence has not decreased since the elections. Availability of electricity, water and other utilities is still sporadic. Oil production has still not recovered to prewar levels. More than 160,000 coalition troops remain in the country, a reminder that Iraqis can’t handle their own security.

The picture is not entirely grim. Food is no longer scarce, landline telephones work more often than not and many Iraqis now have mobile phones, a luxury forbidden under Saddam. Internet and satellite telephones are available to those who can afford them. Streets in Baghdad are lined with fruit stands, furniture sellers and coffee shops. The number of cars in Baghdad has tripled in the last two years.

The most recent poll by the International Republican Institute shows 62 percent of Iraqis believe the country is headed in the right direction while 23 percent say it is headed in the wrong direction, the largest positive-to-negative spread since the invasion.

While 48 percent of Iraqis favor a “special role” for religion, 44 percent say religion and government should remain separate.

All this has cost more than 1,500 American lives and about 16,000 wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths vary widely, but the lowest estimates are in the tens of thousands. The last few weeks have seen Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Ukraine announce they would begin pulling out their troops.

We opposed this war from the beginning and we believe the United States should withdraw its troops sooner rather than later, under a sensible exit strategy. While some argue that chaos would follow an American withdrawal, it is also true that U.S. troops have become a lightning rod, attracting the very attacks they are working to prevent.

Saddam Hussein is out of power, which is good. Now it is time to leave Iraq, for better and for worse, to the Iraqis.