We need a clear timetable for Iraq withdrawal

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While all eyes will be fixed on today's Middle East conference in London, the biggest and most immediate crisis remains that of Iraq. Yesterday's suicide attack in Hilla, south of Baghdad, which killed over 110 and wounded more than 130 Iraqi civilians queuing up to apply for government jobs, was the deadliest suicide attack so far in Iraq. It took place less than one month after elections were supposed to have opened up a whole new era of self-determination.

While all eyes will be fixed on today's Middle East conference in London, the biggest and most immediate crisis remains that of Iraq. Yesterday's suicide attack in Hilla, south of Baghdad, which killed over 110 and wounded more than 130 Iraqi civilians queuing up to apply for government jobs, was the deadliest suicide attack so far in Iraq. It took place less than one month after elections were supposed to have opened up a whole new era of self-determination.

The sheer brutality of the assault against civilians beggars belief, as does the motivation. Killing fellow Iraqis in this way seems barbaric and senseless. The aim of the insurgents would appear to be to make the conduct of government as difficult and dangerous as possible, and also to warn off anyone signing up to join the civil authorities. Yet the actions can only serve to harm the life and the livelihood of the people the insurgents would purport to support.

The difficulty for the nascent Iraqi government is how to respond to such attacks. On the one hand, the violence makes it ever more difficult to do without the military muscle of the US-led occupation forces if it is to achieve the kind of security needed for peaceful development. As Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister and leader of the minority secularist group in the assembly, argued yesterday: "We will continue to need and to seek assistance for some time to come."

On the other side, the continued presence of the coalition forces, including the British, only serves to fuel the insurgent anger and give strength to their cause of ridding Iraq of foreign occupation and hitting at anyone deemed to be aiding and abetting the occupiers. Remove those forces and you remove the main enemy against whom the insurgents, and their passive supporters among the population, claim to be struggling.

With negotiations still going on to choose an effective Iraqi government, the decision is hardly an easy one. But as the country moves closer to a transference of real power to the political parties elected at the end of January, now is the time for the US and the UK to consider a clear timetable of withdrawal.

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