After condemning the suggestion of many Democrats that the U.S. should create a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq, the Bush administration’s Pentagon is tentatively constructing just that. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, returning from a visit to Iraq, seemed to support that plan by insisting that the training of Iraqi troops was going so swimmingly that the current level of U.S. forces in Iraq would not need to remain much longer. What gives?

The convergence of pressures—from plummeting public support for the war at home, calls for the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces by Iraq’s political factions, and the U.S. military’s campaign for an exit strategy to save a force at the breaking point—are causing the administration’s flip-flop on the issue. An astute cynic would realize that the first factor, Bush’s plunging public support, trumps the latter two. Republicans are deathly afraid to face the public in both the 2006 congressional elections as well as the 2008 presidential elections, without the return of at least some percentage of U.S. forces from this unpopular war. The Pentagon’s plan to have fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of 2006 (compared to almost 160,000 now) makes Republicans a little less skittish about their electoral chances.

Although a partial drawdown of U.S. forces, including moving most of those remaining to bases in the rear, may reduce U.S. casualties, help elect some Republicans, and take some of the fire out of the Sunni insurgency, it is likely to end in disaster for Iraq and the Bush administration’s legacy. The new U.S. plan is to clear Iraqi towns of insurgents with U.S. forces and then hold them using newly trained Iraqi security forces—rather than the current counterproductive U.S. strategy of destroying towns and then leaving. At the same time, the U.S. will bribe Sunni tribal leaders in an attempt to get them to forgo support for the insurgency.

But once the U.S. troop drawdown begins, pressure for further withdrawals will outpace the training of Iraqi security forces—the capabilities of which have been vastly overstated by the Bush administration and the U.S. military in their rush to show progress in getting out. With talk of withdrawal in the air, the guerillas will lose some recruits as the presence of the foreign occupier becomes less intrusive, but they will have no incentive to quit fighting. Things are going their way and they will face less capable adversaries as U.S. forces leave.

So, is the answer to keep U.S. forces at their current levels or even increase their numbers in hope of smashing the Sunni resistance once and for all? Quite the contrary, it is clear that current U.S. forces cannot subdue the insurgency. Furthermore, it is unclear that even a doubling of U.S. forces would be able to snuff out a guerrilla rebellion that enjoys much support from the Sunni population. At the same time, increasing U.S. force levels would clearly break the U.S. military and would be impossible given the American public’s souring on the war.

The only hope that Iraq has for a avoiding a chaotic civil war as U.S. forces begin to withdraw is to remove the Sunnis’ incentives for fighting. They are rebelling to prevent paybacks for the Saddam Hussein era from Shi’ite and Kurdish militias, which essentially control key parts of the Iraqi central government. Such paybacks are already taking place: murders of Sunnis by the Badr Organization, the ruthless militia of the largest party in the ruling coalition, as well as the recent uncovering of an Interior Ministry prison that tortured Sunnis. Also, the Sunnis are fighting to avoid being cut out of Iraq’s oil bonanza, which lies mainly in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas.

Saving Iraq will require the Bush administration to alter its fundamental goal in Iraq: a unified country. Iraq is an artificial country that has been held together over the years by the brute force of dictators. It is now being held together only by a foreign military. As that military exits, Iraq will break apart one way or another. In fact, with all of the armed factions policing parts of Iraq, the country already has a de facto partition.

To recognize the facts on the ground, the United States should mediate a controlled partition of Iraq so that each group’s militia can rule its own area free of fear of oppression from a strong central government. As an incentive for Sunni acquiescence, any partition arrangement would have to contain an agreement to share petroleum revenues or oil fields. To provide an incentive for the Shi’a and Kurds to share some of that oil wealth for a halt in the Sunni rebellion, the United States would announce an immediate withdraw of its forces, as Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), a conservative decorated Vietnam veteran, and two retired army generals have recently suggested. Those forces are the only thing currently propping up the Shi’ite-Kurdish government. Most likely, either Iraq will be partitioned in this controlled peaceful way or violently by the civil war that will intensify as the United States conducts its gradual troop withdrawal.