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Commentary: What is good for Iraq now stills remains to be seen

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If, as Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill once said, all politics is local, I direct your attention from President Bush's speech on Iraq Wednesday to the District of Columbia and its police department. Back in 1989 and 1990, the city of Washington was under orders from Congress to quickly hire 1,800 police officers or lose a substantial amount of federal aid. The city did what it was told -- and crime on the police force went way up.

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Within four years, the police academy classes of 1989 and 1990 comprised about one-third of the police force. They also accounted for a disproportionate share of rotten, corrupt and downright criminal cops.

Washington's lamentable experience may about to be duplicated in Iraq. The results might be better, but nothing about human nature suggests any cause for optimism. Just as Washington, D.C., hurried to sign up new cops -- cutting all sorts of corners (psychological testing, extensive background checks, etc.) -- so is the U.S. creating an Iraqi security force, and doing so on the double. These are the troops that constitute the entire exit strategy for America in Iraq. As they get better and bigger, U.S. troop levels can be drawn down. Such, as Bush made plain in his speech at Annapolis, is the plan.

To hear the president tell it, the plan is working splendidly. Should you be so inclined, you can measure progress by logging on to a government Web site (www.mnstci.iraq.centcom.mil) and see for yourself. Everything is going swimmingly. "Mechanized Division puts T-72s, BMPs on parade," is one headline. It tells the tale of one November day when the tanks and armored personnel carriers were turned over to the 9th Iraqi Army Division, "with all the pomp and circumstance befitting the largest NATO-driven equipment donation to date."

Another story tells of basic training where, for some reason, "the soldiers here don't spend their time shining boots, singing cadences or doing countless push-ups." Wonderful! But they do, however, shout "Long live Iraq!" in what is described as "unison." No doubt.

The Web site is a cheerful place of nothing but good news. But there was less happy news recently about elements of the Iraqi army carrying out abductions, torture and executions. This report, by The New York Times and others, is a bit tough to read, describing how bodies have been found with acid burns on the skin and holes made by electric drills. It is not clear if these atrocities, purportedly by Shiites against Sunnis, were carried out by regular army units or whether Shiite militias have infiltrated the army. In fact, very little is clear.

I am not -- not yet, anyway -- a pulloutnick. In the apt Pottery Barn analogy, we broke Iraq and we own it. The National Security Council's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" nevertheless makes a convincing case that chaos, a civil war, a bloodbath and a precipitous loss of American prestige and influence would follow an abrupt U.S. withdrawal. A repeat of the shameful exit from Vietnam has to be avoided -- if only because Iraq is in the center of the Middle East, not a small country on the periphery of Asia.

Still, the hard thinking that was not done before the war -- or even during it -- has to be done now. If, really, reliance on the Iraqi army is just a fig leaf to cover what ultimately will be a sorry U.S. withdrawal anyway, then it would be best to leave now rather than later.

Iraq is not Washington, D.C., I know. (It's probably better managed.) But if the nation's capital did not know who was joining its police force, if it was hiring criminals and psychopaths, giving them a badge and gun, then what, really, can Americans know about the Iraqi army? The barriers of language and culture, of religion and custom, necessarily leave us in the dark. We will, I'm sure, somehow reconstitute the Iraqi army. That will be good for us. But whether it will be good for Iraq is something any Washingtonian with a memory has reason to doubt.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is cohenr@washpost.com.

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