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Try to imagine what was running through the mind of Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, as he sat across the negotiating table from his American counterpart, Ryan Crocker, last week. While the U.S. diplomat delivered his stern warning against Iranian meddling in Iraq, Qomi must have wondered: Why should I listen to this guy? Congress is going to start pulling U.S. troops out soon, no matter what he says.

That's the difficulty for Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus as they try to manage a stable transition in Iraq while Congress chants ever more loudly: "Troops Out! Troops Out!" It's hard for anyone to take American power seriously when prominent members of Congress are declaring the war already lost.

This is a moment when America would be better served by a parliamentary system. The Bush administration would have lost a vote of "no confidence" after last November's congressional elections, and the Democrats would now have responsibility for overseeing the tricky process of extracting American forces from Iraq without doing even more damage. Iraq would be the country's war again, rather than George Bush's.

But we go to war with the democracy we've got, with all its intrinsic impatience. That's a lesson retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Boyd tried to impart to a group of newly minted brigadier generals last week. America has never won a war that lasted more than four years, he reminded them, with the exception of the Revolutionary War when we were the insurgents.

Future military planners will have to recognize that American democracy, in which political mandates must be renewed in two-year increments, makes us uniquely unsuited to fight protracted counterinsurgency wars. Gen. Petraeus likes to observe that it takes, on average, at least nine years to prevail in such a war. If that measure is correct, Petraeus must know that there's little chance that a frustrated and angry American public will grant him enough time for success. So the question is: How to extricate ourselves in a way that minimizes the damage to the United States, its allies and Iraq?

A good start would be for Washington partisans to take a deep breath and lower the volume, so that the process of talking and fighting that must accompany a gradual U.S. withdrawal can work. Some members of Congress argue that pressure for an American troop withdrawal will convince the Iraqis to put aside their sectarian agendas, but the opposite is more likely to be true.

Try for a moment to put yourself in the place of Iraq's Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. The American representatives in Baghdad, Crocker and Petraeus, keep calling on him to disarm his Mahdi Army militia and defuse Iraq's sectarian war. But Sadr can read the stories coming out of Washington. He sees the daily clamor for American troops to come home, and he knows that in the brutal reality of Iraq, this is the time to be stockpiling weapons for his militia, not disbanding it.

Even the good news that people have been touting in Iraq - the new willingness of Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province to ally with the United States against al-Qaida - is in part a warm-up for the civil war that's coming. The Sunni leaders are working with the Americans so that they, too, can stockpile arms for the coming civil war. We are, in effect, arming both sides for this sectarian battle. And not for the first time, either - recall U.S. military support to both Iraq and Iran during their brutal war in the 1980s.

Extricating the United States safely from Iraq will be difficult under the best of circumstances. But it will be impossible if the necessary bargaining takes place against a backdrop of continual congressional demands for a faster withdrawal. In that situation, the Qomis and Sadrs will take the admonitions from Crocker and Petraeus as just so much hot air - and a bad situation will get even worse. Why should they listen to us today if we will be gone tomorrow?

The most sensible comment I heard on Iraq in the past week came from Sen. Barack Obama: "I think we can be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in."

Obama is right and so, for that matter, is President Bush when he says much the same thing. The United States is on its way out of Iraq, but it matters powerfully how we disengage - most of all to Democrats, who seem likely to inherit the responsibility for America's security 18 months from now.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is

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