Two years on from the war, it is time to set a date for troop withdrawal

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The Independent Online

We mark this weekend the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, an unnecessary war fought on a pretext that was false. It is a conflict that has cost us dear. More than 1,500 Americans and more than 80 Britons have died; many times that number have been wounded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives. And still it is not over.

We mark this weekend the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, an unnecessary war fought on a pretext that was false. It is a conflict that has cost us dear. More than 1,500 Americans and more than 80 Britons have died; many times that number have been wounded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives. And still it is not over.

Two years after the first US missile strikes on Baghdad, Iraq is a land laid waste and divided. The promised reconstruction has scarcely begun. Reliable first-hand reports have become fewer and further between - less because outside interest has flagged, although regrettably it has, than because it is too dangerous for journalists to work there. Foreigners and those associated with the occupying forces have become targets for kidnappers seeking ransom or revenge.

Nor have these two years tempered the worldwide opposition to the war. More than a dozen countries have withdrawn their troops in the past year: a motley coalition that began with representatives of 38 countries now stands at 24.

The Spanish contingent that departed after Jose Maria Aznar was voted out of office has been followed by the Dutch and the beginning of a Ukrainian withdrawal - again following elections. The Poles start leaving this summer. And last week, Silvio Berlusconi suggested that the Italians - the fourth largest national group after the Americans, British and South Koreans - could start returning home from September. The chief of defence staff said yesterday that Britain might be able to make up some of the shortfall, but that the prospect was "very hypothetical". We have no doubt it is, given the imminence of own election.

The US insists that there is no threat of the coalition unravelling. Its top brass has even held out a possible reduction in US forces as more Iraqi forces take over patrols. The risk is, however, that the scramble of foreign forces to leave outpaces the capacity of newly trained Iraqis to assume responsibility. As the two permanent members of the Security Council who acted without UN endorsement, the US and British have an obligation to leave Iraq with its sovereignty restored, an administration committed to constitutional government, and an environment that is safe.

The elections held at the end of January offered the first glimmer of hope that such an outcome might eventually be possible. The largely effective boycott by the Sunni population, however, the continuing violence, and the failure - so far - to agree on the composition of the government illustrate how difficult this will be.

President Bush has said that the US will not leave Iraq until Iraqis are able to provide acceptable security structures themselves. Both he and Tony Blair have declined to set a timetable for withdrawal. Such a timetable, however, might be just what is needed. With the foreign occupation fuelling much of the insurgency, it could exert a calming influence. It could give heart to those many Iraqis who want to take responsibility for their country. And here in Britain, it might be seen as hastening the day when this ill-judged and mismanaged intervention is finally at an end.

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