The quagmire in Iraq seems to deepen by the week, with the guerrilla resistance growing stronger and more sophisticated. The past month has been particularly sobering for the United States: five American helicopters downed, more than eighty American soldiers killed, and more departures among the nongovernmental organizations and international bodies needed to help in reconstruction.

In response to these events and to a new CIA report warning of the growing disaffection of the Iraqi people, the Bush Administration has unveiled an “Iraqization” strategy that moves up the date for turning over some control to an Iraqi governing body to June and that speeds up the process of training Iraqi police and security forces. Also anticipated is the first withdrawal of US troops next spring, several months before the presidential election.

The new Bush policy seems more an exercise in political expediency–an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the US occupation while preparing the way to cut and run if the going gets tough–than a serious plan for fostering Iraqi democracy, stabilizing the country or bringing US troops safely home. Indeed, as Jalal Talabani, current president of the US-appointed Governing Council, made clear to the Washington Post, the United States will still be pulling the strings even after the handover, with American troops remaining as “invited guests.”

The Administration seems to believe it can get more Iraqis to join its efforts without ceding, in the near term, any real sovereignty. But without such sovereignty the Iraqi troops the United States is training, as well as the selected Iraqi leaders, will continue to be seen as collaborators and will have little effectiveness in repelling guerrilla attacks–whether by Saddam loyalists or by those simply opposed to the US occupation–or in establishing their own authority. As foreign policy columnist William Pfaff has recently observed, security and sovereignty cannot be separated: “You cannot have one without the other.”

After having waged war on the basis of deception and outright lies, and after arrogantly rebuking the other United Nations Security Council members for their call for more international control, the Bush Administration bears responsibility for the fact that there are no good or easy options in Iraq. Those who say we must “stay the course”–even when they mean by that a genuine effort to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and provide safety for its people–ignore the reality on the ground. American forces, especially in the Sunni triangle, are doing little to provide security for postwar reconstruction and nation-building while provoking ever-greater hostility with their expanding “search and destroy” missions. They are increasingly targets, as are those Iraqis and citizens of other nations (like the nineteen Italians who died in a recent attack) who are cooperating with the United States. More US troops will do little to change that dynamic. Indeed, if history is any guide, this is a war we cannot win, even if the guerrillas represent remnants of a despised regime and lack broad support among Iraqis.

The better, and ultimately more responsible, alternative is an immediate restoration of Iraqi sovereignty–ideally through a process overseen by the UN–combined with an orderly but rapid withdrawal of US troops. Only by setting forth a clear, firm timetable for both to be accomplished–within months–can Washington hope to break the momentum of the guerrilla war and transform the logic of the situation in Iraq from one of occupation to one of restoring self-determination. And it is only by signaling that it is willing to relinquish control–political and economic–that the United States can hope to re-engage the UN. This commitment to Iraqi sovereignty also means that it will be Iraqis, not the officials running Washington’s crony contracting process, who determine the nature of Iraq’s economic system and oversee the process of awarding contracts for reconstruction. Accompanying these changes could be a new effort to establish a truly multinational force that would provide an interim Iraqi government with assistance in reconstruction, security and preparations for elections. But these developments must be the product of, not the precondition for, the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.

The future of Iraq should not be turned into a question of whether America has the stomach to stay the course. It is a question of giving Iraqis a chance to determine their own future, with whatever assistance they choose: the UN, the Arab League or other international bodies.

Yes, there is a danger that Iraq will slide further into chaos or civil war if US forces are withdrawn. But in our neoimperial delirium, we have forgotten one of the lessons of the twentieth century: that no people, no matter how dispirited by years of dictatorship, will tolerate occupation–whatever its intentions–for long before the occupiers themselves become the targets of revolt and the source of instability. We cannot will a stable, democratic Iraq into being, even with double or triple the US forces there now. Only the Iraqis can do that–on their own terms and in their own time.