ATLANTA — The elected leader of Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, is demanding a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country.

In the holy city of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the religious leader of Iraq's Shiia majority, signaled to his followers this week that it was time to negotiate an end to the "illegal" U.S. occupation.

"We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn't have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq," Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said after meeting with Sistani.

Such statements ought to be embraced as good news. They suggest an Iraqi government increasingly confident in its authority and ability, ready to stand up so we Americans can stand down. They represent a flashing neon sign, written in English, reading "This way to the exit."

But the Bush administration refuses to read the lighting on the wall. It doesn't want to leave Iraq. Not now, not tomorrow, and not ever. And its response to the Iraqi demands has made that clear.

The White House is refusing to consider any sort of timetable, insisting that we will withdraw our troops as conditions allow, not as a schedule dictates.

In the past, that position has made military sense, but no longer. At some point in the process, things improve enough that setting a schedule for withdrawal becomes the next logical step. The Iraqis apparently believe that point has come. They believe that the conditions in their country have now improved enough to start talking in real terms of just when the Americans are going to leave.

They aren't talking about an immediate withdrawal, but they do seem to want a guaranteed withdrawal. And as a sovereign country, that is their decision, not ours.

So why is the White House balking at a chance to leave Iraq and claim victory?

Well, one of the administration's primary goals in invading Iraq — in fact, probably its single most important objective — was to establish Iraq as a friendly, long-term host of American military bases. From those bases in the heart of the Arab world, they hoped to dominate the oil-rich Middle East for decades to come. And if that was your goal from the beginning, the calculus of victory gets pretty simple:

Winning means staying; leaving means losing.

A timetable for withdrawal is a timetable for defeat, at least as the Bush administration has defined defeat and victory in its heart of hearts.

The belief that the Iraqis would tolerate or even welcome a long-term U.S. presence was never realistic; it was just another of our many prewar miscalculations. From the beginning, the Iraqis have had other ideas.

Some Iraqis did welcome our invasion as a way to rid themselves of Saddam Hussein. Others fought us from the beginning and continue to fight us. But Iraqis of every political leaning and religious sect were in agreement that we would not be allowed to stay. The experience of occupation has only hardened that sentiment.

We have been in Iraq for more than five years now, and unfortunately, it's still too early to leave. Despite the growing confidence of Maliki and others, neither the Iraqi military nor its government is anywhere near ready to operate on its own.

However, the time is right, for both Iraq and the United States, to start talking seriously about the timing of our exit.

When we do finally leave Iraq, perhaps in two or three years, we will have no guarantee that Iraq will remain peaceful or that it will preserve the bare structure of democracy. Such a guarantee is simply not attainable. We can't be there to baby-sit, and the sad truth is that affairs in Iraq may very well default back to ugly.

But that is not our responsibility. It is the responsibility of Iraqis. That's the message they're trying to send, a message we have no choice but to heed.


Jay Bookman writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: jbookman@ajc.com.