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Why it's time to bring American troops home

HAVING COME recently from Iraq, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania. American troops have become ''a catalyst for violence," and therefore more part of the problem than the solution.

I used to believe that, no matter what one thought of the war, Americans had to stay to keep Iraq from disintegration and civil war. If I thought the United States could prevent either, I would say stay the course. But I believe now that we no longer control events in Iraq and that in the end we cannot hold the country together.

Nor can we prevent civil war, which is already gathering in the shadows, as evidenced by bombed mosques, secret torture chambers, and the victims of death squads found in the desert. Only the Iraqis themselves can come up with the necessary compromises and accommodations to keep Iraq whole.

I now believe, as former defense secretary Melvin Laird recently wrote: ''Our presence is what feeds the insurgency, and our gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and the ability of average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgency."

Perhaps there was a chance right after Baghdad fell that things might turn out otherwise, but a combination of incompetence and ideology-driven blunders has lost that chance. America's reputation for torture has also hurt our efforts.

The Iraqi state is a Humpty Dumpty that is beyond the ability of the United States to put together again. Only Iraqis can do that, and the presence of American forces may actually be a disincentive to ethnic and sectarian compromise.

Victory on the battlefield, of the type President Bush keeps insisting upon, is beyond our grasp. Military commanders on the ground know that they are not defeating the insurgency and that they can only keep it disrupted until, hopefully, Iraqis can manage their own defense.

An American officer in Baghdad told me: ''There is less incentive for Iraqis to fight the insurgency if the Americans will do it for them." Too many Iraqi soldiers are seen -- and see themselves -- as puppet troops -- ''not good Muslims," and doing it only for the money, as some Iraqi soldiers said to Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid.

As it is now, insurgents can make a good case that nationalism and pride demand fighting the foreign occupiers. The hard truth is that more and more Iraqis are joining up with Al Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Take American and other foreign troops out, and the nationalist element to the insurgency sinks.

Iraq today is ''a black hole," as France's antiterrorism judge, Jean-Louis Brugiere, said, sucking in impressionable youths from all over the Muslim world and radicalizing them. Donald Rumsfeld is said to have asked if we were creating terrorists faster than we can destroy them. The answer is yes. The Iraq war is harming us in the greater struggle against Islamic extremism and making the United States less secure.

There will still remain the antagonism between Kurds, Shi'ites, and Sunnis, but young men from abroad, recruited to kill Americans, will be less motivated to come to Iraq to fight Shi'ites and Kurds. Iraq may yet split into three or more parts, and that will be very destabilizing to the region. But the point is we can't prevent it. Only Iraqis can.

But wouldn't a US pullout allow Al Qaeda to crow that it had forced the last superpower out as the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan? Probably, but with an election next month and a new Iraqi government up and running by next spring, we can declare victory and go home, as Senator George Aiken once suggested we do in Vietnam.

The United States could continue to help Iraq reconstruct and train its armed forces. America would remain involved but behind the scenes. Taking foreign troops out of the field would not be a wholesale retreat, as it was for the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Melvin Laird might not agree with Murtha's timetable. The lesson of Vietnam, he wrote in Foreign Affairs, was that ''the voices of the 'cut-and-run' crowd ultimately prevailed, and our allies were betrayed after all our work to set them on their feet." But the war in Iraq is not sustainable in this country, any more than the Vietnam War was in Laird's time. The longer we wait the harder the eventual pullout will be and the greater the betrayal of those who grew to depend on us. That's what we learned in Vietnam.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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