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Let Iraq's Sunnis chase Al Qaeda out

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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."

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