American troops are going to be in Iraq at some strength through the end of the year. Most Americans may not want to hear that, but the men in charge of the war, now in its sixth year, aren't ready to leave the Iraqis to their own miserable devices. Gen. David Petraeus, the chief commander in Iraq, couldn't say it any plainer in his appearance before a congressional committee yesterday - Iraqi forces aren't yet ready to defend themselves on their own, and any progress made so far would be undone if a U.S. withdrawal began in earnest in July.
That was abundantly obvious last month with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's failed attempt to disarm militias in southern Iraq. The subsequent violence in Baghdad saw as many as 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police surrendering to the militia of an al-Maliki nemesis, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It was an embarrassment that required Iranian intervention and U.S. troops to bail them out.
But the unsavory idea of American troops staying put in Iraq offers no assurance that Mr. al-Maliki's government will make the tough choices a U.S. deadline for withdrawal would force - and that includes bringing Sunni fighters, a mainstay of the surge, into meaningful roles and jobs in the government and using more of Iraq's oil money to rebuild the country instead of U.S. dollars. The Petraeus plan would further tax an overtaxed military and keep the cost of the war spiking toward $1 trillion. And most disheartening, delaying a summer withdrawal guarantees that more Americans in uniform will die for the elusive goal of a stable Iraq.
But General Petraeus is a distinguished commander; he devised the surge strategy that has given Iraqis a chance to determine their own fate despite continued sectarian violence and devastating insurgent attacks. He acknowledged the painful sacrifices of his troops and their families. And he's politically astute enough to know that his commander in chief isn't ready to abandon Iraq, which would reaffirm the failure and folly of this war.
General Petraeus is taking a calculated risk. Maintaining U.S. troops at 140,000 might give Iraqi forces the time they need to stand on their own so that the next president - and all three presidential candidates questioned him yesterday - can plan a swift but orderly withdrawal. That's the best we can hope for because President Bush supports the general and is expected to follow his advice.
With this administration so committed to the war and keeping troops in Iraq, there's little more that Americans can expect but for a continued succession of military coffins arriving home.