NEWSPAPER OP-ED

Oct. 21, 2005, Boston Herald

No vote for open-ended involvement in Iraq: U.S. withdrawal should start by the middle of February

By Michael E. Capuano

I recently returned from Iraq. Although I have opposed our presence there, it is important that elected officials review conditions firsthand.

While in Iraq I met with people from every level of the U.S. military, the State Department, the United Nations, various U.S. nonprofit agencies and Iraqi officials. We had many conversations, including assessments of conditions leading to the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum. It is impossible to understate the importance of this event, although entirely possible to miss the most significant aspects.

Commentators focus on the obvious results — how many voted, how they voted, and how many were killed in the process. While important, these are not the most critical aspects for America. What really matters is whether Iraqis accept the results — and choose democracy over violence. This answer will come in the weeks after the vote.

I voted against authorizing the president to invade Iraq. I didn't trust his motives or ability to carry the invasion to a successful conclusion. Since then, I have pressured George W. Bush to get our troops home. I will continue to do so.

I prefer that someone who shared my views were president. I prefer that the president had a solid plan for rebuilding Iraq. I prefer that he adjust his plans to meet reality. Unfortunately, he has given no indication he will alter his position. Therefore, those of us truly interested in ending this war must broaden our actions.

Bush says he won't bring our troops home until Iraq can stand on its own against insurgents. However, he gives no measurements to judge whether Iraq is progressing toward democratic self-reliance. How many Iraqi soldiers will this require? When do we expect to attain that level? How about Iraqi police? Those of us who want to end this war must help Bush answer the questions he won't answer: When will we know Iraq is stable, and how will we know it?

On Dec. 15 there will be another election, this one for parliamentary representatives, providing another chance to judge the progress of Iraqi democracy. That election should be judged as was the October vote — how does Iraq react to the results? Is there violence or do the Iraqis move forward with democracy and a strong defense to violence? Within a few weeks after Dec. 15, the answers will be much clearer. Backers of the war will say this timeline is too short to have such questions answered. But our involvement in Iraq has already exceeded that of World War I. By April, it will have exceeded the Korean War.

It will be fair to measure whether the Iraqis have embraced democracy after three elections, two sets of elected legislators, several constitutional drafts, more than a year of democratic representation, hundreds of billions of American dollars and two years of occupation. It will be fair to determine whether Iraqis have made significant progress toward defending themselves from insurgents after more than a year of training and equipping troops and police, and watching how they handle the violence over the next several months.

These are clear, measurable standards relative to democracy and self-defense. If these standards are met, we can quickly begin to withdraw U.S. forces. If not, it is fair to presume they may never be met, and we should withdraw U.S. forces from an impossible situation. Either way, we should be able to begin withdrawing by mid-February.

February may not be soon enough for some and it may be too soon for others. Regardless, it allows President Bush ample time to determine if Iraq meets his stated criteria.

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Copyright 2005 Boston Herald Inc.