We have paid a heavy price for the Bush Administration’s unnecessary and illegal invasion of Iraq: more than 800 American soldiers dead; more than 4,500 wounded or maimed; and $120 billion wasted on a war and occupation that has sullied our country’s image in the world, undercut our moral authority and poisoned Arab and Muslim minds against us for decades to come. We will pay an even heavier price if we “stay the course,” as the Administration and many Democrats urge. If, as war supporters claim, our goals in Iraq (now that we’ve lost the rationale of hunting down weapons of mass destruction) are stability and democracy, we are proceeding in exactly the wrong way. In the eyes of most Iraqis, American forces have long since ceased to be nation-builders and instead are occupying forces that knock down their homes, bomb their mosques and abuse and humiliate their fellow citizens. The occupation, like other occupations throughout history, has generated a growing popular resistance that cannot be defeated militarily. It is time to change course.

We can start by turning over real sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government. However imperfect this new entity may be, it will have a better chance of establishing at least modest legitimacy if the United States treats it, in private and public, not as a puppet regime but as an autonomous government.

We can also announce that US troops will no longer engage in offensive operations and that we will pull out our forces, with the goal of total withdrawal by the end of the year. At the same time, we can try to persuade the United Nations to establish a multinational peacekeeping force to take over after our departure, and we can pledge to contribute to that effort in whatever way the international community regards as appropriate, including the possible participation of US troops.

To take these steps is not to “abandon” Iraq. Rather it is to assist in producing the stability we claim to want. The United States should continue to help Iraq by providing economic and humanitarian assistance and by supporting UN efforts to aid the interim government in conducting the earliest possible elections. This government should have authority over the economy and oil revenues and command over the country’s security forces, as well as the right to set terms for the operation of any foreign troops on its soil. Washington should announce that it will pay reparations toward the rebuilding of Iraq to compensate for the devastation wrought by the US invasion and occupation. And it should renounce any interest in controlling Iraqi assets and in establishing US military bases. Only by yielding political and economic control in Iraq and disengaging our forces, while supporting UN nation-building efforts in a disinterested way, can we hope to reverse the growing rage in the Arab world and halt the current spiral of violence.

Two arguments are advanced–including by many well-meaning American liberals–against withdrawal. The first is that we owe it to the Iraqis whose lives we have violently disrupted to remain. In this view, withdrawal is tantamount to condemning Iraq to chaos. The second argument, a corollary to the first, is that an unstable, ungovernable Iraq will become a haven for extremists.

Although these concerns are serious, neither argument holds up under scrutiny. If the United States withdraws its forces, Iraq could face a violent power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds or between rival factions of the same sectarian group. But the risks must be weighed against the fact that US forces themselves are a major cause of the current instability. The troops there now are doing little to provide security for postwar reconstruction; they–and those seen to be cooperating with them–are the target of a widening guerrilla war against what is seen as an oppressive occupying power. More American forces will not change that logic; on the contrary, a harsher military campaign will only cause further alienation, turning even more Iraqis–Shiites as well as Sunnis–against us. Furthermore, we are not in a position to repair the divisions among a people whose language we do not speak and whose traditions we hardly understand; indeed, to the extent that we have succeeded thus far in unifying Iraq’s fractured population, it has been in opposition to the American occupation.

With regard to the second argument, that withdrawal would inspire Islamic radicals to flock to Iraq, again, a well-coordinated withdrawal is more likely to deprive these extremists of a pretext, and a context, for future attacks. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that a US invasion would create “a hundred bin Ladens,” and the longer we stay, the more such extremism will be fostered. It is our respect for the will of the Iraqi people that will deprive Islamic radicals of their greatest rallying cry.

The current debate in Washington over Iraq is a peculiar one. Whether the topic is how many troops to send, or the intentions of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, or the relationship of state and mosque, or the partition of the country, the conversation is conducted in splendid isolation from the Iraqi people whose fate is being decided. The disconnect reveals much about US policy-makers and pundits, who cannot accept that US military power will not decide Iraq’s future. Underlying it is the unspoken yet powerful fear that if we “lose” Iraq, our “credibility” will suffer an irreparable blow. But Iraq is not ours to lose. The issue is not what we want (or fear) but what Iraqis want.

The recent surge of support for the uprising in Iraq has begun to disabuse even this Administration of the notion that the fighting is confined to Baathist “dead-enders” and foreign jihadists. In a poll taken by the well-regarded Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies before the release of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos, 82 percent of Iraqis said they now oppose US occupation forces, and a large majority want them to leave. As important, many Iraqi leaders once considered sympathetic to the occupation have now broken with the Coalition Provisional Authority or have intervened, in the case of the battles of Falluja and Najaf, to alter what they considered to be a misguided US military strategy. After Abu Ghraib, no Iraqi leader can demand anything less than the full return of Iraqi sovereignty, including control over the country’s military and police forces. No less an American proxy than Ahmad Chalabi has refashioned himself as a militant opponent of his former patrons.

Within the UN Security Council, France and Russia are now echoing these Iraqi demands and are threatening to oppose any new Security Council resolution that does not give Iraqis full control over their future. We should heed these voices not only because they offer an honorable way out for the United States but because they increase the chances for a stable Iraq. Contrary to the views of those perpetuating the occupation, an internationally agreed-upon US disengagement from Iraq would not be a victory for terrorism or jihadism but for international law and the principle of popular sovereignty. That would be a good thing in today’s Middle East. If that region is to become a more secure and democratic place, the United States must first relinquish the dream of remaking it in its image. Instead, we should learn how to work with others, through international diplomacy and programs of economic assistance, to help those who want our help.

We also must identify those responsible for America’s catastrophic errors. George W. Bush and his advisers, so reckless with American and Iraqi lives (more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in this war) and so heedless of the consequences of their Iraq policies, must be held accountable–through investigations by Congress and at the ballot box in November.

The current tragedy in Iraq can be laid at the door of an Administration that thought it could defy international law and the politics of the Arab world. It went to war without the consent of the UN Security Council and without any understanding of how the Iraqi people would receive an American occupation. We cannot undo this terrible misjudgment or the damage it has done. But we can avoid compounding the harm we have already inflicted by listening to what the Iraqis are telling us: to give them back their country and leave.