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If and when in Iraq

WHEN SECRETARY of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday that it would be a mistake to set a timetable for a military withdrawal from Iraq because that would send a ''lifeline to terrorists," he mixed a reasonable conclusion with a misleading rationale.

The Ba'athists, radical Islamists, and Sunni factions carrying out car bombings, ambushes, and beheadings are not, as Vice President Cheney claims, in their last throes. So posting a timetable for withdrawal would neither save them from oblivion nor give them a fresh motivation to continue wreaking havoc, as Cheney suggests.

Nevertheless, this would not be the right time to announce a date for removing US forces. The Iraqis are in the midst of forging a new pluralist politics rooted in consensus and respect for minority rights. They are preparing to draft a constitution and elect a representative, sovereign government. It would make no sense to impose a deadline for withdrawal before enough Iraqi forces have been trained to defend the populace and before the new Iraqi government is elected -- expected in December, or by next May at the latest. President Bush will likely make some version of this case in his address tonight.

However, Rumsfeld's implicit confirmation of a report in Britain's Sunday Times about secret talks with representatives of insurgent groups in Iraq suggests that even if the administration does not now accept a withdrawal timetable, it does recognize a need to take preliminary steps that will likely lead to such a timetable -- a welcome sign of realism.

At the talks on June 3 and June 13, leaders from the Sunni Arab armed groups demanded a timetable for withdrawal as their bedrock condition for ceasing attacks and entering a peaceful political process. The Sunday Times story quoted one of its two Iraqi insurgent sources saying, ''We told them it did not matter whether we are talking about one year or a five-year plan but that we insisted on having a timetable nonetheless."

The talks reflect a recognition by the administration that a deal with some parts of the insurgency is inevitable. Combined with Rumsfeld's remark that insurgencies may take years to subside and that Iraqis, not Americans, will have to defeat the insurgents, the talks suggest that the administration is planning to start a military withdrawal even before the insurgency is put down.

On the Iraqi side, the fact that Sunni tribal leaders arranged the secret talks indicates that those powerful stakeholders now believe it suits their interests to end the mayhem and resort to politics to protect their position.

The moment is approaching when it may make sense for both Americans and Iraqis to agree on a timetable for withdrawal.

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