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Sunday, July 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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America in Iraq

First of five parts: The ticking clock

The time has come to begin planning an exit from Iraq. We are not wanted there, and we have no legitimate national interest in staying.

Our original war aim, the toppling of Saddam Hussein, has been achieved. It is now apparent that we are not even close to achieving the add-on mission of creating a democratic, law-abiding Iraqi state in which Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds share power.

The supporters of war squeeze much meaning from the Iraqi election and the training of Iraqi police, but there is less than meets the eye. The issue in Iraq is not so much who will enforce the laws of the state, but what sort of state Iraq will have. Democracy is not only about having one election, but a system of continued elections in which the losing parties abide by the results.

It is said that victory in Iraq will require more "boots on the ground." But the willingness of young Americans to enlist falls short. There is talk of a draft but no appetite for it. The generals don't want it because the 21st-century army is not designed to run on conscript labor. The people don't want it because they have little sense that this is a war that matters.

The occupation of Iraq has now gone on for more than two years and is reported to cost us more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the war in Korea. American deaths — more than 1,700 now — are relatively low, but still, each one hurts.

Those war dead, plus the more than 12,000 American wounded, and the far greater number of Iraqis killed, wounded and rendered homeless, need a justification that matters to the American people. The current rationale is that Iraq and the war with terrorists is all one thing, but it was not framed so when Americans and other armies went into Iraq to overthrow a dictator and find his weapons.

Why are we there? The average American cannot clearly explain it. That may be the most telling comment of all.

The people are paying a political price for the war. The president declared certain American citizens "unlawful combatants" with no constitutional rights, and sent his attorney general to the Supreme Court to justify it. And at the first suggestion of the war, the president said it did not require a vote of Congress. He has had to back down on some of these assertions of executive authority, but not all.

He justified the invasion of Iraq on a pretext, "weapons of mass destruction," that turned out to be false. After conquest, he gave a new reason to stay — creating Iraqi democracy — that matters far less to the American people than their own safety, and turns out to be a hazardous and uncertain road.

The supporters of war say, "Support the troops." We support them. We are proud of them. Our soldiers' performance in combat has been superb. If it were a matter of winning the war, the discussion would be over. Now, it is a matter of securing a peace and that is where our soldiers' civilian masters made many mistakes.

Now that the people think of bringing the troops home, they are told we cannot because it would make America look weak. We remember that argument from Vietnam, from Somalia and other places. It is a phony argument. We can bring our troops home. We have done it before and can do it again.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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