BOSTON — Now that the Iraq Study Group has handed in its term paper, now that we have stopped talking about “winning” and are waiting for the president to offer nothing new, may I suggest an exit strategy. Why not hold an election? Why not ask people to vote on whether American troops should stay or go?

I’m not talking about an American election. After all, we already voted against the Iraq war in November. This week, a CBS poll says that 75 percent of us now disapprove of the president’s handling of the war.

I’m talking rather about letting the Iraqis vote. I’m talking about an Iraq referendum on whether we should leave within a year.

I realize that we don’t really put wars up to a vote. It may be a flaw of democracy. And I realize that we don’t let foreigners make our foreign policy decisions, even when war is on their soil. Nor do we allow foreigners to determine our national interest, although we may determine theirs.

But Iraqis and Americans are supposedly allies, even if we are trapped in their civil war. We went into Iraq on the false assumption that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In Condoleezza Rice’s infamous phrase, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” When it became apparent that there were no WMDs, no mushroom-cloud-makers, the president justified the war as a way of bringing democracy to Iraq.

The brightest moment in the whole fiasco occurred last December when 70 percent of Iraqis went to the polls and the purple ink-stained finger became the emblem of hope. The president said the vote proved that “America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror.” Well, not exactly.

A year later, the Iraq Study Group calls the situation “grave and deteriorating.” The “experts” in Washington now pin the blame for failure on the culture, the character, the history or the religions of the Iraqis. The executive summary of the report says, “The most important questions about Iraq’s future are now the responsibility of the Iraqis. The United States must adjust its role in Iraq to encourage the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny.”

Then why not have them vote on their own destiny?

As the president said, “We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there.” Why not let the Iraqi people say whether they want us there? He says that we’ll stay until the Iraqis establish a country that can sustain itself, govern itself, defend itself. Who will decide when that moment has come? Why not let the Iraqis be the “deciders”?

I say this knowing that the Sunnis and Shiites want us to be gone. Polls done by the Program on International Policy Attitudes showed that 71 percent of Iraqis want us out in a year or less. A full 78 percent believe we are provoking more conflict than we are preventing. Majorities believe that the violence would decrease and the government would be stronger if we left.

If the Iraqis voted us out, we would leave — mission ended if not accomplished — or be seen for what we have become: an occupying force. If by some astonishing change of heart, a majority determined that Americans should stay, we might get a chance at a more orderly, if slower, transfer of power to their government. Either way, the Iraqis would take responsibility and change the face of this war.

Holding a legitimate election in the midst of civil war is a challenge. It’s a greater challenge in a place where disputes are resolved with kidnapping and murder. But since the Sunnis and Shiites concur on wanting us out, there’s a chance. There is a chance, as well, with an international monitoring force.

Ah, but what about the chaos likely to occur when and if we leave? The only question now is whether that chaos comes after a 2007 withdrawal, a 2010 withdrawal or a 2030 withdrawal. Won’t we destabilize the Middle East by leaving? Won’t we destabilize it by staying?

In the movie “Bobby,” about the night of Robert Kennedy’s death, there is documentary footage of protesters with signs showing the number of troops killed in Vietnam. By June 5, 1968, the number of dead Americans was 28,191. For seven more years, we escalated and de-escalated, searched for victory and for a graceful exit and then for any exit. While the number of dead doubled.

Today we have nearly 3,000 American deaths, and by one estimate 650,000 Iraqi deaths. Is it worth it? Are the Iraqis better off without us? Why not just let them answer that question with a purple ink-stained finger?

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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