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Needed: candor on Iraq

WITH POLLS indicating that 60 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq is going badly, it is understandable that President Bush has been giving speeches and declaring, as he did last week, ''We have a comprehensive strategy for victory in Iraq.'' The trouble is that Bush has been pretending to have such a strategy since the war began on March 20, 2003, and prospects for stability in Iraq -- never mind ''victory'' -- hardly seem more promising now than three years ago.

There are no easy answers to the question of what must be done in Iraq to enable US troops to disengage and begin withdrawing. But as a first step toward regaining public trust, Bush would be wise to cast aside his triumphalist rhetoric. Instead of asserting his will to stay the course and win an undefined victory against enemies whom he also declines to define, Bush ought to level with the American public about the complex problems that are so apparent in Iraq.

Most immediate is the specter of civil war. It will be a disaster if the current spate of killings by shadowy Sunni Arab and Shi'ite bands turns into a full-scale civil war -- with pitched battles between militias, the melting of army recruits into those militias, and the sectarian cleansing of entire neighborhoods. Neighboring countries would probably be drawn into the maelstrom, and, whatever phrases Bush may have uttered about a need to be resolute, the US military will have no reason and no desire to be caught in the midst of a war between Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs.

Bush needs to explain why it is worth trying to help Iraqis avoid such a war, what he is doing toward that end, and what will happen if the arduous deal-brokering efforts of the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, fail to forge a national unity government that includes Sunni Arab leaders as well as Shi'ites and Kurds. In the same vein, Bush should explain his design in authorizing Khalilzad to open discussions with Iranian officials about ways Washington and Tehran may cooperate to prevent the disaster of a civil war in Iraq.

Candor alone can hardly suffice to create the conditions that would permit US forces to leave Iraq. But it would help. Certainly it is foolish of Bush to go on arguing that the ''enemy'' will only be encouraged if he talks openly of a timetable for a US withdrawal. If the ongoing talks Khalilzad has been supervising among Iraq's parliamentary factions does produce a broad-based unity government able to stamp out the insurgency, it will be those friends who, sooner rather than later, will want the Americans to discuss a timetable for their departure.

If it will be necessary to talk to Iraq's politicians about a timetable, it ought to be possible for Bush to begin discussing that imminent prospect, and other realities of the Iraq war, with the American public.

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