Outside editorial: Mission in Iraq not quite accomplished

Posted: Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

More than seven years after former President Bush announced the start of military operations in Iraq, Americans remain divided about the wisdom of invading that country and staying so long. No matter what side one takes on that score, there should be no dispute over the decision to start getting out.

"Ending this war is not only in Iraq's interest - it's in our own," President Obama declared on Tuesday as he announced the end of U.S. combat operations. He's right on both counts.

For Iraq, the costs of having a large U.S. military presence are twofold. First, their presence is a source of friction among Iraqis, strengthening anti-American attitudes among those who see U.S. soldiers as enemies. Withdrawing troops voluntarily gives validity to the U.S. position this was never intended as a war of conquest. It confounds the U.S. haters.

Second, as long as American combat troops stay, Iraq's leaders are content to let them take the point on security operations, thus postponing the day when they must undertake that responsibility. Why should they do the hard work when we are willing to do it for them?

Delay prolongs the extended political deadlock in Baghdad. It permits Iraq's leaders to haggle endlessly over their differences instead of making the necessary political compromises that might, at long last, produce a coalition government.

For this country, the self-interest in ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is even more obvious.

Aside from the enormous costs of the war in terms of blood and treasure, there is what Mr. Obama referred to as the "contentious" nature of the war and the deep divisions it created and angry passions it aroused.

The president said it was time to turn the page, and he proceeded to show how by making gracious remarks about his predecessor. "No one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security," he said.

Unfortunately, it won't be easy to move on. Although some 100,000 U.S. forces have been withdrawn from Iraq since the peak of the surge, the commander on the ground estimates that 49,700 U.S. troops remain in the country, and will stay through next summer.

That is a significant military presence by any measure, and sure to draw both enemy fire from militants and political fire from those here and in Iraq who would like to see all the troops sent home.

An accelerated withdrawal would do little to promote American interests in Iraq, however. As it is, Mr. Obama has promised a total pullout of U.S. military forces by the end of 2011, giving Iraq's leaders more than a year to get their political act together and take complete responsibility for their own security.

Americans have paid a huge price for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to give Iraqis a chance to create a democracy. Leaving in haste at this point would undermine the American goal and play into the hands of those who want a darker destiny for the people of Iraq.

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