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Published: Monday, 6/9/2008

Out of Iraq

THE United States finds itself further out on that perilous foreign policy limb known as Iraq. Australia is withdrawing its combat troops, other Arab nations have denied the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki debt relief, and Mr. al-Maliki's regime balks at concluding an agreement that makes a continuing U.S. presence there legal.

The good news for this mission impossible comes on the U.S. combat death front. May's total of 19 killed was the lowest since the war began in 2003. This is balanced, however, by a report from the Army last week that the suicide rate among soldiers in 2007 reached the highest level since the military began compiling such figures in 1980.

At least 115 soldiers took their lives, up from 102 the year before. Thirty-two of them died in Iraq and four in Afghanistan, confirming the strain being put on America's armed forces by the prolonged war, now in its sixth year.

Australia has had forces in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, but the government of John Howard lost the November elections in part due to the Australian public's opposition to continued participation in the war. The withdrawal does not reflect a general anti-war position by the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Australia continues to maintain forces in Afghanistan.

The United Nations, at U.S. instigation, convened a conference on Iraq in Sweden last week. One objective was to cancel Iraq's $67 billion in foreign debt, most of it owed to other Arab countries. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended to encourage the Arabs to do so. They didn't.

The other U.S. setback is the so-far-unsuccessful attempt to conclude an agreement with the al-Maliki government that would provide legal cover for a continuing presence of troops and bases in Iraq. The Bush Administration is believed to be seeking a pact for some 50 long-term bases and continued control of Iraq's air space. It also wants immunity for troops, contractors, and private security guards. The U.S. legal authorization to be in Iraq comes from a U.N. resolution, but it expires at the end of 2008.

The Iraqis are dragging their feet on the accord, waiting to see who will head the U.S. government after the November elections. Recently in Baghdad, thousands of demonstrators loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested the efforts toward an agreement, shouting, "No America! No Israel!"

The message of these developments seems clear - another reminder that it's time for the United States to leave Iraq, notwithstanding the views of President Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain to the contrary.

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