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As Congress gathers to hear the reports of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, no amount of Administration spin can hide the ugly reality in Iraq. A surge that should never have been tried and that could never have succeeded has predictably failed. While violence in some parts of Baghdad has declined to June 2006 levels, the number of deaths from political violence has increased in Iraq as a whole. Ethnic cleansing has proceeded apace, and the humanitarian catastrophe, already staggering, has worsened. Some 2.5 million Iraqis are now refugees in neighboring countries. Another 2 million are internally displaced. And despite Bush Administration claims to the contrary, most of Iraq’s cities and towns still lack regular electricity, sanitation and other basic services, and suffer from economic depression. Up to half of Iraqis are unemployed.

The stated purpose of the surge was to create enough security in and around Baghdad to give Iraqi politicians breathing room to pursue reconciliation. But with the exception of some very minor recent concessions on de-Baathification, the Shiite-led government has stuck to positions that have prevented most Sunnis from participating in the government. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to speak of an Iraqi government that has power or authority outside Baghdad’s Green Zone. Real power resides with the militias on the ground, which are competing for resources and influence throughout much of Iraq. Even within the Green Zone, some seventeen ministries have withdrawn their support from the government and increasingly act as independent fiefdoms handing out resources to loyal constituents.

The surge has done nothing to change this–in large part because the United States, despite its sizable military and substantial economic largesse, is powerless to coerce or cajole change in the centers of power. Any gains the surge has produced may be gone tomorrow, like a footprint washed away by the tide.

The surge has thus been a cruel hoax on the American people and on our servicemen and -women (more than 600 of whom have been killed and 4,000 injured since the surge was announced). It is yet another Administration bid to stave off public pressure to withdraw and thus to avoid admitting failure. This irresponsibility–this morally indefensible sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives in pursuit of unachievable goals–must end. The Iraq War has long been lost, and it is time to bring it to a close. We continue to believe that a complete withdrawal of US forces, carried out as quickly as possible, is the best course of action for the United States, Iraq and the region.

The question before Congress and the nation should not be whether to give the surge more time but how best to end the occupation. So far the Administration has been able to thwart Congressional efforts to force a withdrawal–first with the surge and now with its dire warnings of a disaster in store for Iraq, the region and US interests if we withdraw. Also troubling, several Democratic presidential candidates seem to have bought into these worst-case scenarios and have begun to slow their timetable for withdrawal, adding new conditions for a pullout. Some are even calling for keeping a sizable residual force in Iraq or neighboring countries indefinitely. Congress must resist White House claims about the surge’s “success” and deny additional funds for the occupation, instead pursuing reconciliation and reconstruction, at home and abroad. As the Administration presses its PR offensive for an extended surge and open-ended occupation, it is critically important that we let our representatives know we’re fed up with the war and want the troops home–now. Otherwise, Congress is unlikely to buck White House pressure.

Those who support a residual US force in Iraq argue that a complete withdrawal would hamper our ability to deter Al Qaeda attacks, sectarian atrocities and regional war. We believe that any good accomplished by a residual US force would be outweighed by the harm it would do.

Consider the question of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which at most has a few thousand fighters. Local Sunni groups tolerated them in the past because they were allies against the occupation. Now that the Sunni tribes expect a US withdrawal, they have begun to turn against Al Qaeda. And if the Sunnis aren’t able to eliminate the jihadis, the Shiites and the Kurds will, with the blessing if not the outright help of neighboring countries like Syria, Turkey and Iran, which do not want Al Qaeda to gain a foothold in the area. And as regional expert Flynt Leverett has pointed out, conventional ground troops are useless for counterterrorism missions. A residual force in Iraq (or in neighboring Kuwait) would further inflame popular opinion against the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds and be a boon to jihadi recruitment.

As for intervening to stop sectarian atrocities, US military forces in much larger numbers have not been able to stop the violence that has claimed nearly 2,000 Iraqis a month or to prevent the ethnic cleansing that has displaced millions. It is not clear why a smaller force would be any more effective. The sad fact is that much of the ethnic cleansing has already taken place–on our watch. To be sure, a US withdrawal may lead to an intensification of the civil war, as different factions make a grab for power. But stability among these factions can be established only after a US withdrawal. Indeed, any US forces will be destabilizing because one group or another will try to draw them into the battle on their side. Only after we commit to a complete withdrawal will there be any hope of international mediation and a lasting settlement based on a balance of forces not subject to US favoritism and power maneuvers, suspected or real.

As to the concern that a complete withdrawal will lead to regional war, as different countries intervene in Iraq’s civil war: This is a naïvely self-centered view of the Middle East and its problems. For all its democratic and human rights shortcomings, the region is resilient and capable of managing conflict. It survived fifteen years of civil war in Lebanon and almost a decade of brutal war between Iran and Iraq. It will survive the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. It was the Saudis and Syrians who in 1989 brokered an end to the war in Lebanon, not us. And Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia have the greatest stake in keeping the Iraqi conflict contained and therefore can be counted on to control their allies in Iraq once US forces withdraw.

More important, a commitment to a complete US withdrawal would open the way for international mediation and peacekeeping efforts, under the auspices of the United Nations, the Arab League or the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Indeed, it may be the only way to develop a regional concert of powers that can work with Iraqis to stabilize the country and control the conflict. Only by removing US forces and ending all claims to permanent bases can Washington increase the possibility that other countries will assist Iraq. The best way to prevent regional destabilization is to refocus our regional efforts and help Iraq and its neighbors cope with the humanitarian crisis we helped create. We can begin by helping to organize assistance for Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to resettle their Iraqi refugees. We can press Gulf countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia not to buy US weapons and host US troops but to open their doors to their Iraqi neighbors. And we can talk with Syria and Iran about our common interest in an Al Qaeda-free region instead of threatening to overthrow their governments.

Not only is withdrawing from Iraq in our national interest; it is also the moral, responsible thing to do. There is one way to atone for our illegal invasion and reckon with the human catastrophe our occupation has caused: End the occupation and abandon the pretense that only American power can bring order and democracy to the region. Then there will be a fair test of the Iraqis’ willingness to settle their differences and of the international community’s ability to assist them. And then we will be able to prove our nonimperial claims and play a constructive role in the region and world.