Both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair urgently need a plausible exit strategy from Iraq. That they want to get out, now that their reasons for the war have so dramatically collapsed and domestic support is fading, is beyond doubt. But neither wants to leave in ignominy, with their last man dramatically lifted of an embassy rooftop by helicopter.
Both Bush and Blair want to leave Iraq, if not with a victory, then at least with some sense of "mission accomplished." Judging from their recent statements, the scenario that they are concocting is simple. In January, there will be elections in Iraq. The resulting government will then ask the occupation troops to leave, say, within a year. Withdrawal will begin next spring.
While that scenario is simple, reality is not. The first nagging question is this: will there actually be elections next January? Prime Minister Iyad Allawi assures the world that there will be, and President Bush echoes his words. More neutral observers - and indeed, the daily news bulletins about bombings and hostage taking and "insurgents" - cast doubt on that prospect.
The probability of Iraqi elections being held this coming January must be lower than 50%, and we can be certain that these will not be free and fair elections throughout the entire country. Indeed, Iraq no longer deserves to be described as a united country. It has now joined the growing list of the world's failed states and can at best be described as a potential federation of three states plus the unruly city of Baghdad.