Leading article: The perils of planting democracy in a hostile land

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One thousand days. This is how long British troops have been in Iraq, and still we are counting. Such an accumulation of time seemed inconceivable in the days after the invasion, when the military operation looked likely to be completed in weeks. As we now know to our cost, the ease of removing Saddam Hussein offered no preparation for the multifarious resistance that was to come. Ousting a dictator is one thing; sowing and watering the seeds of democracy where none existed is an undertaking of quite a different order.

This latest landmark coincides with early voting in parliamentary elections - the final stage in US and British efforts to nurture the democratic institutions we had promised Iraq before the war. And while many Iraqis will vote, and surmount formidable obstacles to do so, violent resistance remains as entrenched as ever in the centre of the country. Ominously, in recent weeks, it has also started to spread across the south.

At this point, the question must be confronted: is the presence of foreign troops now the chief cause of the violence? Is it more of a hindrance than a help to Iraq's development in a peaceful and democratic direction? Has the time come, perhaps, for the British - if not also the Americans - to make their excuses and leave?

The increased frequency of attacks on British troops in the hitherto relatively peaceful south suggests that peace-keeping and nation-building will only become harder. While casualties are a fraction of the 2,000-plus losses of the United States, they are approaching 100, and there is little sign that the casualty rate is slowing.

Even in the most elementary practical matters, such as improving supplies of clean water and power, not to mention security for civilians, the achievements of the troops have been depressingly limited. Many regions are too dangerous for aid workers or reporters to operate in. Police recruits and pilgrims, as recent incidents have shown, are sitting targets for militants.

At home, the Government's decision to go to war has been a cause of disaffection among Britain's Muslims. The war may not have led directly to the bombings in London in July, but they were undoubtedly a factor.

For Britain to announce that it was leaving now, however, would convey certain messages - both in Iraq and here at home. It would tell Iraqis that, despite all protestations to the contrary, Britain was not in it for the long haul; it was quitting rather than accept the consequences of the (many) mistakes made during the occupation. It would tell the militants, and Iraq's potentially meddlesome neighbours, that there was everything to play for. A bloody free-for-all could follow.

And a summary withdrawal, while gratifying some opponents of the war, would leave Britain looking irresponsible and fickle. The damage to community relations and to trust in the Government was done by the invasion and the mismanaged occupation. It will not be undone by a withdrawal that precipitates a bloodbath. So long as casualties remain relatively low, there is little to be gained by bringing the troops home, and much opprobrium to be risked from leaving the US and others in the lurch. Dependability is a valuable quality in an ally; we should hesitate before placing it at risk.

It is possible that, if the security situation deteriorates further, not leaving now will come to be seen as a mistake and an ignominious retreat will follow. On balance, it is probably worth waiting in the hope that the elections usher in calmer times and serious reconstruction can begin. The only bright point in this whole sorry episode will be if we are able to plan an orderly departure and leave Iraq in a better state than we found it. Anything else will constitute a shaming defeat.

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