Steve Chapman

"I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude," President Bush said last year, a bit resentfully. "That's the problem here in America: They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."

Apparently not. It seems the rarest person in the world is a grateful Iraqi. This week the Baghdad government said it would reject any agreement on U.S. forces that "violates Iraq's sovereignty." That came days after tens of thousands of Shiites took to the streets to protest a proposed agreement that would keep U.S. forces there for years to come.

Followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who rejects any such accord, turned out to hear a sheikh who warned, "The cancer has spread and has to be removed." Afterward, reports The Washington Post, they chanted, "Get out, get out, occupier."

Cancer? Occupier? That's not quite how it looks to American supporters of the war.

They see the United States as the savior of the ordinary Iraqis who survived Saddam Hussein only to be victimized by violent extremists. We certainly have made some sacrifices on their behalf, including more than 4,000 troops killed in the war and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on it.

In light of the improvement in security over the last year, you would expect most Iraqis to have a new appreciation for our efforts. Before the surge, Iraqi civilians were dying at the rate of more than 3,000 a month. This year, it's been fewer than 1,000 a month. So it might make sense to keep the Americans around for a while.

But that was not the prevailing sentiment last week among Sadr's followers. The proposed deal has also been denounced by the head of a Shiite party that is part of the ruling government, as well as the country's premier Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

It's not the prevailing sentiment among the Shiites' main rivals, either. A February poll found that 73 percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of foreign troops in Iraq -- including 77 percent of Shiites and 95 percent of Sunnis.

Americans spend a lot of time debating the question of whether we should remain in Iraq. What never seems to occur to us is to ask the Iraqis the same question. Sadr is demanding that any agreement be put to a national referendum. We ought to endorse that approach, asking the government to let Iraqis vote on whether we should stay or go.

The U.S. went into Iraq five years ago to liberate the country from a tyrant. We have made war on al-Qaida in Iraq, whose tactics managed to alienate even their Sunni allies. Lately, we've also established comparative tranquility. If there was ever a time when Iraqis could calmly and peacefully weigh in on our presence, it's now.

Every major group has obvious grounds to want us around. We facilitated elections that let the Shiites gain dominance, allowed the Kurds to maintain their autonomy in northern Iraq and brought Sunni militias over to our side. In short, we've done something for everyone.

Yet all indications are that Iraqis can unite behind only one proposition: Yankee, go home! If that's the case -- or even if it's not -- how can we justify not letting them express their preference? How can we say that the people we have tried to bless with democracy should be denied a democratic means of resolving the issue?

And why on earth should we mind? If the issue were put to a vote, one of two things could happen. The first is that Iraqis would make it clear they don't want us around anymore and are ready to take over full responsibility for their own affairs. In that case, we can hit the exits with a clear conscience.

The second is that they would have a sudden change of heart, realize they can't manage without us and ask us to stay. That would not convince many Americans who think the potential gains to our security are not worth the cost. But it would surely strengthen the argument for staying.

In November, Americans will get to vote in what amounts to a referendum on the U.S. role in Iraq. Why should we be the only ones?


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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