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Question on Iraq now is: When will it be over?

Whatever U.S. aims to achieve, answer is: Not for long time

Cpt. John Poole, 28, of Los Angeles, from the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, Iraq, plays soccer with a small local boy Saturday. The 1st Brigade has started a youth program.
Cpt. John Poole, 28, of Los Angeles, from the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, Iraq, plays soccer with a small local boy Saturday. The 1st Brigade has started a youth program.
Rob Griffith, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As Americans became accustomed to wars with murky outcomes over the past half-century, they also became used to asking, "How do we know when we've won?" Their second question was usually "When can we all go home?"

The Bush administration tried to fast-forward past such questions last week, as its critics used its call for an additional $87 billion for Iraq to demand specific answers. Inside the White House, as a senior administration official put it, the current question is "When can we make this look more like Bosnia or Kosovo?"

Those are places where U.S. troops do not make up a majority of forces on the ground, and where peacekeepers operate without excessive concern that their Humvees or the U.N. headquarters will be blown up. They are also places where problems with the daily reconstruction are boring enough to stay off the evening news.

The message in President Bush's two major speeches last week — on Sunday night from the White House and in Quantico, Va., on the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary — was that Americans shouldn't expect that moment in Iraq anytime soon.

A few months ago, White House officials were scoffing at comparisons between the occupation of Iraq and the lengthy post-World War II occupations of Japan and Germany a half-century ago. But last week, both Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were invoking those successful experiments in nation-building as they counseled patience.

"We committed years and resources to this cause," Bush said of the postwar rebuilding. "And that effort has been repaid many times over in three generations of friendship and peace."

But for all the bear-any-burden talk, a drive is on to hasten the moment when America may be able to declare victory — or at least its first stages.

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq fell to 127,000 last week, down roughly 10 percent from a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator, envision Iraqi security forces totaling 186,000 by 2005. They already count 46,000 Iraqi police officers now on the job, heading toward a goal of 65,000 or 75,000. They want a new Iraqi army of 40,000 (right now 1,000 are being trained) and 15,000 members of a civilian defense corps, though they acknowledge it could take five or six years to get there. They also want 3,700 border guards, twice the current number. And for every one of those Iraqis who step into the street or the desert, some American is supposed to be going home.

Meanwhile, the race is on to rebuild the decrepit oil industry, so that the dream the administration dangled a few months ago — a country that could generate $100 billion a year — might come true. Next year, Iraq will be lucky to pump $10 billion worth, and progress depends on preventing terror groups from blowing up wells and pipelines.

At least that is the hope. But even as the the aggressive goals are set, the president seems caught between two strains of thought in his administration that define a complete victory in Iraq very differently.

Publicly, Bush has said he plans for Iraq to radiate democracy in a way that will transform the whole Middle East from a cradle of strife and terror.

But that is a task that will take "a generation," his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledges. This suggests a long-term presence, like the one that has kept tens of thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea for half a century, but Rice and others insist that once the current stage has ended, the remaining U.S. force can be light, mobile and smaller.

The other approach, recommended by conservatives who oppose using the military for nation-building, and by some Democrats running for president, is to keep the U.S. role limited: Having ousted the bad guy, they say, the task is to stabilize Iraq and get out. Democracy? It would be nice, they add, but you can count the number of Jeffersonians in Baghdad on the fingers of one hand. Reconstruction? Washington will help, but George Marshall doesn't work here anymore.

Rumsfeld appeared to give voice to that view while answering reporters' questions last week. "I don't believe it's our job to reconstruct the country," he said, words that may be thrown back at him as Congress begins hearings on the administration's request for $13 billion to do exactly that — from getting the electricity back to establishing a financially credible central bank.

"The Iraqi people will have to reconstruct that country over a period of time," Rumsfeld added. "Our goal is not to create a dependency in Iraq. To the extent you are too heavy a footprint, you don't help them, you hurt them because foreign forces in a country are an anomaly."

These different messages — "we're there for the long term" versus "we're on a glide path out of town" — have created confusion. Bush made it sound on Sunday like an open-ended commitment. Rumsfeld, Bremer and, in closed-door meetings, Vice President Dick Cheney sound as if they want to speed the pace of exit. "I'm anxious about it," said John Hamre, a deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton who led a survey group to Iraq for Rumsfeld this summer.

"The president committed himself the other night to a serious effort that will take years," said Hamre, now the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "That was a brave thing to do. But then I hear others changing the yardsticks, saying that what we need to do is just bring the economy back to its prewar levels, or to set up the structure for an Iraqi political process" — a goal different from getting a working democracy and government in place.

Even if the Iraqis can police the country and keep mines off the roads, will they be equal to dealing with the and Hezbollah members who have infiltrated Iraq? That has been a problem in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are creeping back. "How can you make this 'the central front' in the war on terrorism while you are pulling back?" Hamre asked.

The pace of troop withdrawal will be driven largely by the security situation. And it is that situation that the administration misjudged. A high-ranking official said early this month that planners before the war envisioned Iraqi soldiers surrendering in units. "We'd strip them of their heavy armor, give them back their rifles and put them out on the street as a security force," he said.

It didn't happen that way. The troops melted away, and some dug up mobile grenade launchers and used them. "Guerrilla war wasn't in the plan," another administration official, angry at Rumsfeld, said.

Two years ago, Bush dreamed of devising exit strategies for U.S. forces from Bosnia and Kosovo. He had to give that up, and he knows that in Iraq, even more so, there is no turning back.

A year ago, a top State Department official, Richard Haass, who left the administration two months ago, warned that the war on terrorism offers no easy exit. "What we need," he said, "is an endurance strategy."