Out of Iraq: It's time to set a deadline for withdrawal

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

President Bush's announcement that he will reduce troop strength in Iraq by a mere 8,000 is a tacit admission that, while violence has plummeted, success is fragile. Put another way, the United States cannot bring more soldiers home without risking all hell breaking loose.

Here's why:

The president is right that the surge, which sent an additional 30,000 soldiers to Iraq in the spring of 2007, has worked. To be more accurate, it has worked in combination with something else.

Experts say that the Sunni "awakening," which began among tribes in Anbar province, deserves the lion's share of the credit for suppressing al-Qaida in Iraq. By comparison, the surge, these experts say, played a lesser role in reducing violence.

The "awakening" amounts to a neighborhood watch program, created by tribal leaders and sponsored by the United States, which pays its members $300 per month.

Unfortunately, the Iraqi government, which is dominated by Shia, not Sunni, Muslims, is dragging its feet in taking over the "awakening" program. Prime Minister Maliki has agreed to integrate only 20 percent of the program's fighters into the Iraqi army. In addition, the government has issued an arrest list for 600 leaders of the movement.

If this slap in the face of the 103,000 Sunnis in the "awakening" is not redressed, they will take up arms against the government.

This is just one example of how Iraqis have failed to use the breathing space that the surge and the "awakening" have provided to integrate the nation and its institutions. The Shiites who dominate the government also have not reached agreement with the minority Sunnis and Kurds over laws to implement provincial elections, distribute oil revenues or draw internal borders.

This confirms that the sectarian and ethnic hatreds in Iraq run so deep and wide that it probably is impossible to bridge them. If so, civil war and the emergence of a military dictatorship are possible.

The real decision that faces the next U.S. president, then, is whether to announce a time-certain withdrawal of U.S. forces, while violence is low, or commit to staying for an indefinite period of nation-building that probably is futile. Not a happy choice, but it is a clear one. It's time to get out.

Besides, the United States should refocus its military and nation-building efforts on the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the real threat to U.S. security lies. We explain the reasons why in the following editorial.