In the run-up to the January 30 election in Iraq, the prospects for a fair and credible outcome have steadily diminished. As Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reported, rather than the normal democratic ritual of voters and candidates, what Iraqis know is “a campaign in the shadows, where candidates are often too terrified to say their names. Instead of holding rallies, they meet voters in secret, if they meet them at all. Instead of canvassing for votes, they fend off death threats.” Filkins further reported: “Of the 7,471 people who have filed to run, only a handful outside the relatively safe Kurdish areas have publicly identified themselves. The locations for the 5,776 polling places have not been announced, lest they become targets for attacks.”

As conditions deteriorated, it became harder for the Bush Administration to spin the upcoming poll to choose an Iraq National Assembly as a major step toward restoring security. Gen. George Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, predicted more violence on election day and “for some time” thereafter, while a new US intelligence estimate foresees the elections being followed by more violence and possible civil war.

The June 28 handover of sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi failed to bring order to the country. The Allawi government was unable to achieve legitimacy, to woo disgruntled Sunnis into the political process or to recruit a reliable Iraqi security force. The insurgency has grown to an estimated 200,000 fighters, with most of Baghdad now hostile terrain. Offensives that military commanders claimed would crush Baathist strongholds produced at best a fleeting success while further damaging the US image. Falluja was destroyed and most residents have become long-term internal refugees.

Iraq’s largest mainstream Sunni Muslim party has already pulled out of the elections, saying that the violence plaguing areas north and west of Baghdad makes a free and fair vote impossible. The Kurds and the Shiites will make up the majority of voters, skewing the results and leaving the Sunni Arabs underrepresented in the new National Assembly, which will choose a temporary government and draft a constitution. Sunnis will have little incentive to turn against the insurgency and to join the political process. Even if the victors in the election are unusually magnanimous in their treatment of the Sunnis and far-sighted in their vision for the country, the occupation will remain a rallying cry for insurgent forces and thus an obstacle to national unity.

As long as the occupation continues, any Iraqi government or constitution will be tainted and incapable of producing the compromises necessary for a stable and unified Iraq. Therefore, for the sake of Iraq’s future and the safety of our young men and women, the United States must begin an orderly withdrawal, coordinated with stepped-up US and international economic assistance. We recognize that further violence and internal fighting among Iraqis may follow, but to believe that a continuing US military presence can prevent this is naïve or disingenuous; it will, rather, contribute to the instability. The best long-term outcome is for Iraqis to regain control of their own country and sort out their own future.

An increasing number of Americans recognize the worsening situation. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly half of those responding called for either US troop reductions or complete withdrawal. The politicians are beginning to hear them. Sixteen House Democrats recently signed a letter urging a total pullout. “This is the only way to truly support our troops,” the group said. Senator Edward Kennedy reportedly will soon call for withdrawal by the end of the year. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft warned that the election has “great potential for deepening the conflict” and said it was time to ask “whether we get out now.” Conservatives from the Cato Institute to Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative have called for withdrawal. The antiwar movement is regrouping.

In February the Administration will demand from Congress a stunning $100 billion supplemental appropriation to maintain US military forces in Iraq. The growing number of Americans who see an Administration blindly leading the nation toward more death and destruction should tell their representatives, “No more money for war!” That would be the best example of democracy we could offer the Iraqi people.