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On September 23, shortly after interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi insisted to a joint session of Congress that "we are succeeding" in Iraq, I met with one of his subordinates in an Arlington hotel. Thamir Al Adhami, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had traveled to Washington not as part of Allawi's entourage, but to participate in a nation-building seminar for Iraqi officials sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace. With his elegant cream-colored suit and expensive eyewear, Adhami represented an Iraqi middle class under extreme pressure. Hundreds of Baghdad professionals, the backbone of an Iraqi civil society, have been assassinated by insurgents since the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, prompting thousands more to emigrate. Working for the interim government is especially hazardous: Aroundthe hotel's lunchtime buffet, several of Adhami's colleagues chatted casually about the death threats they have received.

After Allawi's speech, President Bush insisted that the United States would "stay the course" against the insurgency. I asked Adhami what would happen to the insurgency--and the prospect of a free Iraq--if the 137,000 American troops then occupying his country came home. Considering Allawi's forceful declaration of solidarity with Bush just a few hours earlier, I expected Adhami to answer that the United States couldn't possibly leave without wiping out the insurgent sanctuary of Falluja or expediting the preparation of Iraqi security forces. I was wrong. Adhami replied that, while an immediate pullout would be disastrous, the United States needed to loudly set a date for withdrawal."I tend to believe that [you need] to give them"--the insurgents--"at least a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "If you say, `We are staying as long as it takes,' well, God knows how long it will take. That means, `We are staying here permanently.'"

It was a candid--and rare--admission that the U.S. presence in Iraq, considered essential by many to keeping chaos at bay and lifting democracy to its feet, has become an obstacle to establishing a free Iraq. Though the insurgency consists of divergent factions with divergent goals--some fight to restore Baathist tyranny, others to impose Salafist rule--most are simply nationalists, fighting for no discernable ideological motivation beyond a hatred of the U.S. occupation. It's a popular position among the country's Sunni Arab population, theformerly dominant minority estimated to represent 20 percent of Iraqis. According to a Zogby poll released last week, 83 percent of Sunnis want the United States to leave imminently, and 53 percent actually consider attacks on American troops legitimate. This popular support, which provides the insurgency everything from passive cooperation to guerrilla recruits, deepens every day that American troops remain in Iraq, and it prevents those troops from dealing the insurgency a final defeat.

Recognizing--and reversing--this dynamic is the last chance we have to salvage a decent and democratic outcome for Iraq. Adhami wasn't giving up hope by envisioning a U.S. withdrawal. He was considering it a prerequisite for success. This is true despite the inspiring sight of Iraqis braving death to cast their ballots in Sunday's election. Although Iraq's Shia majority and Kurdish minority overwhelmingly embracedthe vote, Sunnis apparently voted in significantly smaller numbers, indicating that it did little to quell the restiveness made manifest in theinsurgency. A State Department poll in December found that only 12 percent of Sunnis considered the coming election legitimate. This is hardly surprising, given that the Association of Muslim Scholars, an umbrella group claiming the allegiance of 3,000 Sunni mosques, argues that no election under occupation is legitimate--a contention it repeated after the vote. And given that the parliament elected Sunday will craft Iraq's constitution, disputes over the body's legitimacy could split the country along ethnic and religious lines. As Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni former member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, argued in The Washington Post last month, "Very few scenarios take us deeper into chaos and civil unrest than this very likely outcome."

Iraq's Sunni and Shia Arabs are united by one thing: their desire to be rid of the occupation. In the Shia areas of Iraq, sermons and political speeches rallied support by painting the elections as a mechanism to expel the United States from the country. Association of Muslim Scholars leader Harith Al Dhari, who met with American occupation officials last month, demanded a timetable for U.S. departure--somethingthe leading Shia candidates' slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, campaigned on until the final week of the election. That doesn't mean theUnited States should unilaterally withdraw. But, if the United States brokered an accord with the new Iraqi government to bring the troops home--preferably in a staggered fashion and by the end of the year--it would hand the fledgling Iraqi government perhaps its largest opportunity for sectarian reconciliation: the ability to say that democracy, not violence, secured the end of the occupation for the benefit of all Iraqis. More than any other policy option, such a move has the potential to fracture the radical Baathist and Salafist elements of theinsurgency from the insurgency's broader, nationalist base of support, enabling an Iraqi counterinsurgency campaign to fight the true "dead-enders."

To be sure, withdrawal will not by itself keep the political process alive. The (probably) Shia-led government will have to make reconciliation a priority, the Sunnis will have to decide the political process is in their interests, and the residual insurgency will have to be destroyed. But, for any of that to occur, the occupation has to end. Which is why supporters of the Iraq war in particular--and especially those who, like me, backed the war in the hopes that democracy would take hold in Baghdad--should want our troops to come home, and soon.

Lieutenant General Lance Smith, the deputy chief of Central Command, had an unpleasant assignment on November 19. He had to publicly contradict his three-star colleague, John Sattler, the top Marine commander in Iraq, who had told reporters the previous day that the U.S. invasion of Falluja had "broken the back of the insurgency ... disrupt[ing] them ... across the country." More unpleasant still was Smith's concession the next month that the insurgency "is becoming more effective." Then, in January, insurgents successfully assassinated several senior Iraqi officials, including the governor of Baghdad. In less than one week that month, their improvised explosive devices destroyed two Bradley Fighting Vehicles, fully armored and weighing 25 tons each. And, even before the heightened brutality that preceded the elections--when the largely frustrated insurgency still murdered 44 people--an average of 75 attacks took place each day. That's about as many as before the Falluja operation.

All of which appears to have led American commanders to question whether they can actually defeat the insurgency. "The day after theelections, the insurgency will still be there," a senior officer told the Los Angeles Times. "And it will continue for several years to come." What's more, at least some American civilian and military officials in Iraq and at the Pentagon recognize that "U.S. troops might be undermining the legitimacy of the Iraqi interim government and creating the impression that an unpopular occupation will continue indefinitely," as The Wall Street Journal recently reported. As a result, commanders say they're changing their strategy, shifting thousands of troops away from combat duty toward training Iraqi security forces. "Training Iraqis is the whole nine yards right now," a senior administration official told the Los Angeles Times last month. "We can't stay in front on this over the long haul and be successful," General George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said late last month. "We're viewed by the people ... as an occupation force."

But the new security approach is basically the old security approach--only allegedly faster. The United States will train and equip Iraqis so that our troops can pass the security baton to them. And Bush, in his postelection remarks on Sunday, emphasized that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq until that point: "We will continue training Iraqi security forces so this rising democracy can eventually take responsibility for its own security." But simply training them faster is unlikely to bring that goal any closer. Because the U.S. presence helps the insurgency's recruitment efforts, the finish line keeps receding into the distance. 

That's why, at several points over the past 18 months, the United States has revised its assessments of necessary Iraqi forces upward, in terms of both size and capability. In late 2003, American officials in Iraq estimated a need for 85,000 Iraqi police. The Pentagon increased that number by a third last September, to 135,000. Early occupation plans called for an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) to conduct internal anti-militant missions, sized at 25,000 troops. By November 2003, that number had risen to 40,000; after the ICDC's poor performance in Falluja the following April, it was disbanded and reformed as the Iraqi National Guard, with its needed end-strength reassessed in September 2004 at nearly 62,000--more than twice its original estimate. Recently, officials announced plans to fold the National Guard into the new Iraqi Army; earlier this month, Allawi announced that he needed to raise the target number for that newly restructured army from 100,000 to 150,000 soldiers. In August 2004, officials quietly conducted a reappraisal of Iraq's security needs, after which, writes analyst John Pike, "the objective end-strength of Iraqi forces appear[ed] to have more than doubled." 

And with good cause. Last month, Allawi's intelligence chief, General Muhammed Abdullah Shahwani, stated that the insurgency at all levels--from actual fighters to the citizens who help them--has grown to over 200,000 people, with a commensurate increase in lethality. While it's unclear whether Shahwani's assessment is accurate, it's an order of magnitude larger than U.S. estimates. A significant part of that growth is attributable to Sunnis furious at the prolonged occupation. Guardian Baghdad correspondent Rory McCarthy recently interviewed an insurgent known as Abu Rahman, who exemplified this dynamic. Initially, the 25-year-old gave "thanks to the Americans for getting rid of Saddam," but the occupation inflamed his patriotism and his religious sensibilities to the point that "the idea of jihad came step by step as I watched what the Americans were doing to our country." 

The infusion of Abu Rahmans into the insurgency has created the need for more Iraqi security forces to combat them. Consequently, the gap between the actual number of Iraqi security forces and the target number of Iraqi security forces has expanded: Pike estimates that, between October 2003 and November 2004, the deficit increased by 89,600 missing troops. As a result, the United States needs to stay in Iraq longer to make up the shortfall, further delaying the day when the security baton may be passed. Defense expert Anthony Cordesman estimates that Iraqis won't be able to assume full security responsibilities until late 2006. And, if this pattern continues, another two years of occupation will further roil Iraq to the point where the number of Iraqi policemen and other security forces needed will rise yet again, necessitating a further U.S. commitment to prepare them for duty. This vicious circle is why retired Army Colonel Michael Hess, a veteran ofthe Bosnia nation-building mission, told the Post, "The longer you are anywhere, the more difficult it becomes." Or, as Donald Rumsfeld once famously wrote his staff about the war on terrorism, "The harder we work, the `behinder' we get."

The solution isn't to give up on the Iraqi security forces. It is to fracture the insurgency so that the security forces have a more manageable task. The nationalist insurgents seeking an end to foreign domination of Iraq must be divided from the radicals seeking to impose either Baathist or hard-line Islamist rule.

A negotiated U.S. withdrawal could accomplish just that. Sunnis who live in insurgent-held territory--that is, parts of the country where theU.S. presence is negligible or nonexistent--have often come to reject the agendas of the Baathists or the Salafists, who share Osama bin Laden's vision of a state based on "authentic" Islam. In Latifiyah, for example, when fighters demanded last November, under penalty of death, that schools close down in solidarity with the Fallujan insurgents, the populace was disgusted. "Around 400 students aren't getting an education and 15 teachers are sitting at home with nothing to do because of the mujahedin. What good does that do?" asked primary school headmaster Anwar Ismail. And, as Karl Vick of the Post reported, even in Falluja, once a stronghold of the insurgency, many locals were offended by the insurgents' "stern brand of Islam." The commander of a largely nationalistic insurgent outfit told Vick, "Please do not mix the cards. There is an Iraqi resistance, a genuine resistance, and there are other groups trying to settle accounts."

The trouble is that, as long as the United States remains in Iraq, Sunni frustration with the insurgency will pale in comparison to Sunni anger at their occupiers, and fracturing the base of the insurgency will be all but impossible. Worse, there are already signs that the Sunnis' anger at the illegitimacy of the occupation is metastasizing into anger at the political process itself, which is perceived as designed to empower the Shia at the Sunnis' expense. Mohammed Faik Riffat of the moderate Iraqi Islamic Party bitterly told the Journal recently, "They [the Americans] care only about putting the Shiites in power over us," a perception fueled not only by the election--which took place despite Sunni pleas for postponement--but the relative distribution of U.S. reconstruction aid, which has tended to favor the Shia.

Riffat's message resounds in Sunni mosques around Iraq. A preacher at the Um Al Qura Mosque in Baghdad routinely blames the United States for striving to keep Sunnis "poor, ignorant, and divided." During the U.S. invasion of Falluja, Sunni clerics lashed out at Shia religious leaders loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani for staying silent in the face of the U.S. attack. The notion that the Shia are in league withthe United States was so potentially incendiary that a Sistani aide refuted it at length to Al Hayat last month. Political analyst (and secular Shia politician) Ghassan Al Atiya observed that the Sunnis may be saying to themselves, "What do we have to lose if we cause mayhem? We are bound to be dominated by the Shia anyway." As Atiya put it, "This would be the beginning of sectarian war."

We may have already heard its warning shots. In early December, a new Shia militia calling itself the Brigades of Fury fought Sunni insurgents outside of Latifiyah with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, leaving more than 20 combatants dead. It's doubtful thatthe Brigades received Sistani's blessing for the attack. But, while Sistani and the United Iraqi Alliance have denounced ethnic conflict, Sunni assaults on the Shia--often in the form of attacking Shia truck drivers or security force recruits--are increasingly trying Shia patience. "How long can we be patient in the face of these crimes that are happening every day?" Shia preacher Jalaledin Saghir asked in a recent sermon.In June, a convoy of Shia truckers were murdered and their bodies mutilated, allegedly on the orders of Fallujan insurgent leaders reportedly tied to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the bin Laden affiliate who has advocated civil war. As Tish Durkin reported for National Journal, the murders were to punish the Shia for collaborating with the United States. If this dynamic continues, the political process itself--tied to theAmericans, benefiting the Shia--could become the engine of the insurgency. 

If a potential civil war is tied to the perception that the Shia are the tools of the American occupiers, there are reasons for both hope and fear. Much remains unclear about Shia plans for Iraq (especially the role they want Islam to play in governance), but they have hardly been subtle about their preferred relationship with the United States. In December, outside Baghdad's Kadhimiya shrine, a banner read, elections are the ideal way to expel the occupier from iraq. A Shia mobile phone salesman told a Chicago Tribune reporter in November, "This election, for me, will be the happiest moment in my life, because it means we will end the occupation." Anti-occupation sentiment played a significant role in the Shia insistence on holding elections on schedule, regardless of the security danger. Nadeem Al Jabbery, the leader ofthe Shia Fadhila Party and a Baghdad professor, told a reporter, "If we don't have elections or an elected government, then the Americans will stay and our problems will continue." According to last week's Zogby poll, 68 percent of Shia respondents want the United States out either immediately or after the elected government takes office.

Moreover, despite the resentment that anti-Shia violence has aroused toward the insurgency, the top contenders for Shia political leadership are still emphasizing the need for a united Iraq. The United Iraqi Alliance places national unity atop its political agenda. "Our group believes in sharing power with all Iraqi factions," top Alliance candidate Abdul Aziz Al Hakim said at a Baghdad press conference last month. "We have rejected the idea of a sectarian regime, and we believe that Iraq is for all Iraqis." In the interview Sistani's aide gave to Al Hayat, he said, "The center of religious authority [i.e., Sistani] is eager that all participate in drafting the constitution," adding that "the representation of our Sunni brethren in the coming government must be effective, regardless of the results of the elections."

Fortunately, in recent days, several Sunni notables who reject the election have signaled their willingness to participate in drafting theconstitution. "The elections are one matter; the constitution is another," Sheik Moayad Ibrahim Al Adhami of the Association of Muslim Scholars told The New York Times. Reportedly, the Association has stated that it would accept a Shia-led government's legitimacy--if it truly secured a timetable for ending the occupation. So, not only is the U.S. presence helping to cultivate and unite the Sunni insurgency, it is also jeopardizing the possibility of bringing the Sunnis into the political process that will establish Iraq's permanent government.

That's not all a prolonged U.S. presence jeopardizes. Staying has political implications for the Shia as well. Less than 30 percent of Shia told Zogby that they support predicating U.S. withdrawal on establishing Iraqi security forces-- precisely the position the Alliance adopted last week. With Sistani backing the election to the hilt, it's difficult to believe that Shia popular support for the political process can deteriorate as rapidly as support for the Allawi interim government did. But that's not to say that the Shia consensus behind the process is stable. For example, Moqtada Al Sadr is expertly positioned to shatter the consensus, and a prolonged occupation affords him his biggest opportunity.

The violent Shia cleric, who seeks to displace Sistani as the supreme Shia authority, has telegraphed his intention to paint the moderate Shia leadership as U.S. puppets. In December, he challenged "our great religious authorities and leaders [to] take a pledge from theoccupation, its followers, and unjust armies to leave the country and have a schedule for their departure immediately after elections." TheAlliance's decision last week to abandon its call for negotiating a U.S. withdrawal may be understandable, but it cedes a powerful issue to Sadr for his exploitation--after all, many Shia supported the Alliance in no small measure to end the occupation. And, if Sadr can succeed in fracturing Shia unity, Shia politics may not remain very moderate for very long: Sadr's politics tend toward Iranian-style theocracy.

Of course, any withdrawal strategy carries with it tremendous risk. Although American troops are currently unable to stop a rising tide of violence, their absence, some fear, could precipitate an overwhelming escalation of chaos: The insurgency could overrun the government and seize control of the country; fighters from neighboring countries could flood Iraq to fill the U.S. vacuum; a civil war could break out;the jihadists could score a propaganda victory over the United States. And any responsible consideration of withdrawal has to assume that, in the immediate term, security will deteriorate. But these nightmare scenarios are unlikely to result in the wake of U.S. departure. In fact, some are more likely to occur if we stay.

While the insurgency can replenish itself and fight the United States and the Iraqi government to exhaustion, there's little chance it could actually hold onto power, even if it managed to grab it in the wake of a U.S. troop withdrawal. The second Baath coup in 1968, as Charles Tripp underscores in his History of Iraq, succeeded because it seized Iraq's sizeable existing state security apparatus and duplicitously convinced the Shia clerical establishment that the Shia wouldn't be persecuted--neither of which is possible today. Neither could the largely foreign Salafists--who are a distinct minority in the insurgency--impose their rule on Iraq: Their brand of Islam was too caustic to gain support even in Falluja. Significant regional intervention is a similarly unlikely proposition. Not one of Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors is willing to lend vocal support to the insurgency, much less material aid. Intervention, if it occurs, is likely to be limited to governments like Syria's turning a blind eye to money or weapons crossing their borders, which we can't stop even with the 150,000 troops we have in Iraq now.Turkey would have to give up on its ambition to join the European Union if it invaded the Kurdish north. Iran will have little reason to ratchet up its intervention if, as is likely, the new Iraqi government is significantly Shia: Tehran's mullahs implored Iraqi exiles in Iran to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance.

The prospects for outright civil war and for jihadist propaganda victory, however, are significant. But they're far more likely if the United States stays than if we leave. The Sunnis, 82 percent of whom want the United States out in short order, could continue to direct their anger at the occupation to what they increasingly see as its Shia beneficiaries. Conversely, the Shia, 68 percent of whom want the U.S. to leave Iraq expeditiously, could grow frustrated with their more moderate leadership--which cautions patience with both the United States andthe Sunnis--and answer Sunni attacks in kind. Similarly, the global Salafist jihad gains much more with the United States in Iraq than out.As the U.S. National Intelligence Council recently assessed, the occupation is providing the jihad with both a rallying cry and a training ground. It's true that the Salafists will declare victory if the U.S. withdraws. But they will declare victory no matter what, as bin Laden did after Tora Bora. What's crucial from a U.S. propaganda perspective is to create a counterexample: To say the democratic political process, and not insurgent violence, ended the occupation. 

None of this is to suggest that the short-term security picture won't worsen if the U.S. withdraws. It's clear that, even if the occupation ends, the insurgency won't. Although the nationalist bulk of the insurgency will likely dissipate, the Baathist and Salafist elements will remain. And, if the barbarity of their preelection attacks is any indication, they will fight even more ferociously if the political process receives Sunni legitimacy. "Are [Iraqi security forces] capable of taking over the counterinsurgency campaign themselves right now today?The answer's no," General Casey recently told reporters. He's right. Against a growing insurgency, a force built from scratch faces a Herculean task. But, against a fractured insurgency, deprived of those supporters who simply see it as the quickest way to an independent Iraq, it has a real chance. Without a united Sunni front against occupation, the residual extremist elements--which have little support among Sunnis--would lose their growth potential. They would likely have a much more difficult time of attracting new recruits, moving resources around thecountry, and maintaining operational secrecy.

Strange as it may seem, the Bush administration once accepted that the occupation bolstered the insurgency at the expense of Iraqi democracy. The inextricability of Iraqi self-determination and security was its entire rationale for the June 28 transfer of sovereignty to Allawi's interim government. In November 2003, the administration assessed that, unless the occupation ended rapidly, the political processthe occupation was supposed to shepherd would collapse under the weight of anti-occupation outrage. "Full sovereignty will give Iraqis a direct interest in the success of their own government," Bush explained in May 2004 at the Army War College. Furthermore, theadministration argued, if the occupation ended, the nationalist element to the insurgency would see its cardinal raison d'être disappear. As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage observed on the date of the handover, "Those who are ... formally fighting against the coalition in Iraq are now fighting against an Iraqi government and Iraqis themselves."

The problem was that the administration substituted its own definitions of sovereignty and occupation for the ones Iraqis understand. On June 28, the United States disbanded the political arm of the occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority, but it kept 137,000 troops indefinitely stationed on Iraqi soil. Not surprisingly, it took only a few days for insurgent attacks to return to their pre-handover levels of 35 to 40 daily engagements. And, by October, 65 percent of Iraqis told International Republican Institute pollsters that the interim government didn't represent their interests.

Whether the Bush administration will make the same mistake again remains to be seen, but the early indications are not promising. TheUnited States may be hurrying to train troops, but Lieutenant General James Lovelace recently stated that the Army expected 120,000 troops to remain in Iraq through 2006--hardly a sign that the occupation is coming to a close. One Pentagon proposal, modeled after the so-called death squads used against the Salvadoran guerrillas in the 1980s, is to prepare Shia and Kurdish commandos who would target Sunni civilians as well as insurgents. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving the terrorists," a military official involved in the debate told Newsweek. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation." While the option is reportedly still under discussion, it indicates that some Pentagon officials are not only acquiescing to the idea of civil war, they're urging the United States to take sides.

It's not sadism that motivates administration officials to advocate staying in Iraq. It's a deep belief in the mission--to bring democracy to Baghdad--and the similarly deep belief that, unless U.S. soldiers and Marines lend muscle to the nascent government, the mission will fail. But there are many ways the mission--that is, the creation of an inclusive, democratic Iraqi political process--can fail, and the most serious of them are predicated on the United States staying, not leaving. Whether the Bush administration realizes this is one of the greatest unknowns of an opaque situation. And the administration's apparent confusion is felt, and felt deeply, by the 150,000 troops it has sent to Iraq. "The general feeling among a lot of guys is that they wonder why we're here, or at least why we're still here, or what our mission is," Army Specialist Justin Crawford recently told the Post. Bush needs to tell Crawford clearly: Your mission is to enable Iraq to have a stable and democratic future. And that's why you're coming home.

This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.