With Iraq descending ever further into chaos and civil war, the first order of business of the new Democratic Congress when it convenes in January must be to pass a resolution establishing a clear and expeditious timeline for the withdrawal of US forces. Such a resolution would not only reflect the will of the American people; it would offer the only reasonable course of action. The inescapable truth is that the Bush Administration–first with its illegal and unjustified invasion and then with its divide-and-rule occupation–has produced in Iraq a strategic and human catastrophe of untold proportions. There is nothing we can responsibly do except withdraw US troops and work with other nations to keep the civil war and chaos from spreading to neighboring countries while providing humanitarian relief to Iraq’s victims.

Some members of Congress, however–including some in the Democratic Party–continue to resist setting a clear timetable for withdrawal. Others say they prefer to wait and see the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG), which according to preliminary reports will offer a range of familiar policy ideas for stabilizing Iraq, including reining in the militias, training more Iraqi troops and pressuring the Shiite-dominated government to include more Sunnis.

Yet the monstrous events of November put an end to the illusion that US forces can somehow stabilize Iraq before they leave. The bloody civil war, brutal revenge killings and escalating sectarian violence claimed more than 200 Iraqi lives over the Thanksgiving weekend alone, promising to make November an even deadlier month than October, which according to a United Nations report saw 3,709 Iraqi civilians killed. The 140,000 American troops in Iraq were unable to prevent this violence, just as they have been unable to stop the ethnic cleansing that has taken place over the past year. According to the UN, 365,000 Iraqis have fled their homes and communities since the bombing of the mosque in Samarra in February, and more than 50,000 are fleeing their homes every month.

These statistics do not fully capture the gruesome horror that much of Iraq has become. Nor do they capture how helpless US forces are to establish security. As journalist Nir Rosen reported earlier this year, “The Americans are just one more militia lost in the anarchy.” Indeed, the Iraqi government has no authority outside the Green Zone, nor any control over the proliferating Shiite and Sunni militias.

The notion that the Iraq Study Group can offer new ideas for stabilizing Iraq is just the latest imperial illusion preventing Washington from facing reality. If it is honest, the Baker-Hamilton commission will acknowledge that the only feasible option for America is to leave–as quickly as possible.

The recommendations that the ISG is reportedly considering have all been attempted, without success, in one guise or another over the past two years. The Administration has tried training the Iraqi army and police and has only empowered and supplied more militias, who have used the police and now the army as cover for their death squads. It has pushed the Maliki government to dismantle the Shiite militias, only to be told that both the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization are either off-limits because they’re aligned with the government or beyond its control.

The Administration has pressured the Shiite government to increase the number of Sunnis–to the point that the US Ambassador is viewed by many in the government as a Sunni stooge–only to watch as some of the Sunnis appointed resigned when their interests were ignored. It has tried fewer troops in Baghdad. It has tried more troops in Baghdad. It has even tried behind-the-scenes discussions with representatives from Iran and with Sunni insurgents. Yet despite these policy changes, Iraq has continued its downward spiral into chaos–into a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe.

The only clear accomplishment of the US presence in Iraq has been to create more enemies. There is little American troops can do to stop the killing because they are mistrusted, if not hated, by nearly all sides. An overwhelming majority of Iraqis consider American troops a destabilizing force, even the enemy. In a September poll by the University of Maryland, 78 percent of Iraqis said that the US military is “provoking more conflict than it is preventing”; 71 percent, including 74 percent of Shiites and 91 percent of Sunnis, want US soldiers out within a year or less; and 61 percent of Iraqis favor attacks on American troops.

Given this hostile popular sentiment, how can these troops possibly stay? Sending in more troops, as some prominent members of Congress have proposed, to intervene against both the Sunni insurgency and the Shiite militias would only cause more US and Iraqi casualties and create yet more hostility. Ending the occupation is the only sensible option.

Withdrawing American troops will not, of course, necessarily halt the chaos and civil war. In fact, we understand that they could get worse, no matter what the United States does. But we also believe the US presence itself continues to inflame the situation. Ending the occupation would remove one of the causes of the violence, and it would allow the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own destiny and to hold their own leaders accountable. It would also resolve the American troops’ untenable position, created by their political commanders in Washington, which has put soldiers in the middle of a civil war, without a clear military mission, despised by most of the Iraqi people, shot at by Sunni insurgents as well as Shiite militias.

The focus of American policy, therefore, must shift from trying to stabilize Iraq with a failed occupation to working with other countries to help Iraqis cope with the humanitarian crisis that US policy created and to keep the civil war from spreading beyond Iraq. These goals can best be pursued through an international, UN-sanctioned humanitarian mission, perhaps a joint UN and Arab League initiative. Muslim countries like Indonesia have offered to provide more assistance, even troops, if the United States ends the occupation.

Only by removing American forces, and ending all claims to permanent bases, can the United States increase the possibility that other countries will assist Iraqis. The United States must help by providing money and logistical assistance, such as the sea- and air-lifting of supplies and refugees, and by signaling clearly through its deeds that the era of failed coercive us-versus-them diplomacy is over. In addition to supporting an international humanitarian effort, the United States should work with other UN Quartet members (the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) to organize a regional conference of neighboring states, including Syria and Iran, to obtain their cooperation in containing sectarian violence and resolving the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.

Nearly 3,000 American men and women have been killed in Iraq since the war began, and more than 20,000 have been wounded or maimed. We have spent $350 billion on the war and plan to spend more in the coming year. How many more American men and women must die, and how much more treasure must Americans offer up, before our leaders have the courage and common sense to admit that there is nothing we can now accomplish that would make right the catastrophe the Administration created with its unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Iraq? That is the question we demand an answer to, and we need to do so every day until the President sets a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces–or Congress does it for him.