BRONXVILLE, N.Y. — President Bush's "Plan for Victory" refuses to set a timetable for withdrawing US troops from Iraq on the basis that a premature departure could turn the country into "a safe haven for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on America."
On the contrary, convincing Muslims and Sunni Iraqis, the backbone of the rebellion in Iraq, that US troops will return home sooner, not later, is prerequisite to dismantling the terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born emir of Al Qaeda, as well as securing peace in the war-torn country. The presence of foreign forces has not only divided Iraqis and fueled local armed resistance but it has given impetus to Al Qaeda for building a foothold in the Anbar Province in western Iraq, the heart of the Sunni territory.
Iraqis themselves are eager for coalition forces to depart. For example, a new poll by several news organizations, including ABC and Time magazine, found that two-thirds of Iraqis said they oppose the presence of US and coalition troops - 14 percentage points higher than in February 2004. Nearly 60 percent disapprove of how the US has acted in Iraq. Nearly half want US forces to leave soon. Reassuring Sunnis that the United States is genuine about leaving Iraq is key to convincing them to lay down their arms and instead confront the Zarqawi network.
Last month, in a rare moment of consensus, Iraq's political factions, represented by more than 100 Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders, collectively called for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces at an Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference in Cairo.
Although a pullout date was not specified, it was an important symbolic gesture from Shiites, who now control Iraq's government, to Sunni Arabs who feel disfranchised and marginalized. In another effort by Shiites and Kurds to compromise with Sunnis, Iraqi leaders condemned terror attacks and religious backing for them, while broadly acknowledging a general right to resist foreign occupation, distinguishing between Zarqawi's illegitimate terrorism and "legitimate national resistance."
Since the Cairo meeting, Sunni leaders and clerics, who largely boycotted the last election in January, have urged their followers to go to the polls Thursday and publicly voice their opposition to Zarqawi. Now the rallying cry in Sunni mosques all over the Sunni heartland is that the community must vote "in order not to be marginalized."
Joining Iraqi forces against the spread of Al Qaeda is necessary in paving the way toward social harmony and stable democracy. At least 10 members of the Iraqi Islamic Party have been reportedly killed since the party announced in October its decision to run in the election. Sunni leaders and clerics have accused Al Qaeda of carrying out most of the killings. After the assassination of two prominent Sunni clerics last month, the Association of Falluja Scholars, a Sunni group, pointed a finger at Zarqawi's followers whom they labeled as "collaborators with the occupation." Those strong words voiced by hard-line clerics, who support the nationalist rebellion, reveal deepening schisms with Zarqawi cohorts.
Further, a coalition of nationalist guerrillas in the Anbar region have released a joint statement urging fellow Sunnis to vote Thursday and warning Al Qaeda militants not to attack voters. This warning is another indicator of the widening rift between homegrown Iraqi fighters and the Al Qaeda network, who have been, until recently, cooperating in their efforts to expel US forces.
Zarqawi's indiscriminate slaughter of civilian Shiites reportedly pushed many Iraqis who had fought under his banner to join the Islamic Army, a local resistance faction. According to Sheikh Mahmoud Mehdi al-Sumaydai, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq's highest Sunni religious authority with links to the rebellion, called on Iraqis to resist not just foreign occupation but also Zarqawi's "masked terrorism." Now more and more Sunnis say Zarqawi is impeding their ability to regain a measure of political influence in the new Iraq. They resent the lumping of their nationalist resistance with Zarqawi's small but deadly operation.
Al Qaeda lacks the military capability or the broad power base for a permanent foothold in Iraq. In fact, thought prevails within the country that once US troops have withdrawn, Zarqawi would be chased out. Since the hotel bombings in Zarqawi's native Jordan, Sunni public opinion in Iraq and elsewhere turned against his global jihad ideology. Zarqawi is a creature of the war in Iraq, and his fate depends on the social turmoil there. Once Sunni Iraqis are fully brought into the new political order in Baghdad, they will find it in their own interests to defeat the terrorists in their midst.
The Cairo tentative agreement, a pivotal milestone, brought all Iraqi communities together and offered a peaceful vision - a way out of the violent struggle - that must be translated into action in a much larger reconciliation conference in late February.
The US should not cut and run from Iraq. But setting a realistic timetable for withdrawing forces is crucial to co-opting disaffected Sunnis into politics and weaning them off the armed struggle. That would also force Iraqi communities to compromise with one another and resolve their political differences. Equally important, extracting the US from Arabia's shifting sands would make young Muslims, enraged by the American occupation of an Islamic country, less receptive to Al Qaeda's global jihad call.
• Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."