As President Bush and Gen. David Petraeus work to make the case that yet more time is needed for victory in Iraq, the goal for success no longer resembles the high hopes the architects of the 2003 invasion had in mind.

Bush’s decision to wage war against Saddam Hussein after the Sept. 11 attacks — six years ago last Tuesday — led to many miscalculations and mistakes. Critics contend those mistakes continue today.

Bush not only wanted to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and overthrow a brutal dictator but to create a pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Arab world.

In a speech to the nation on Thursday, Bush firmly rejected calls to end the war, saying Iraqi and American interests were still at stake, but he backed an eventual troop-withdrawal plan suggested by Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Bush insisted that major troop cuts could only be a “return on success,” a signal that key progress had been made.

To many others, though, the “victory” goal now is to exit with the least amount of additional bloodshed or lasting damage possible — either to Iraq or to the United States.

How and when to depart Iraq are not easy questions to answer, according to responses from three local residents.

Jim Schlosser, chairman of the Crawford County Democratic Committee, said, “The question of what to do with Iraq is not easy to answer, in part because there is no answer. The American public was duped into believing Iraq had WMD (weapons of mass destruction), was involved with the 9/11 attacks and was a hotbed of terrorists. Going on five years later, we Americans — all but 30-something percent — and the rest of the free world have determined that those issues were total fabrication and/or outright lies. This fact cannot be forgotten when considering what to do with Iraq.”

Jan Hyatt, one of the founders of the Crawford County Women in Black organization that holds a weekly vigil in Meadville’s Diamond Park, said the question “is not that simple. It’s not either/or (stay or leave). There are other alternatives from my perspective. The alternatives are to try to bring peace to the area with international peacekeeping forces. I don’t think America ought to be occupying that country.”

Howard Beers, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2006 of Meadville, opposes a major troop withdrawal until the job there is done. “I don’t think we should pull out right away. They (Iraqis) will be worse off and have more turmoil than before. I kind of support the president with what he said,” Beers said.

Republican U.S. Rep. John Peterson, whose Fifth District includes portions of eastern Crawford County, also is supportive of the president’s efforts to fight and win in Iraq. “The president judiciously framed the graveness of precipitously withdrawing our troops; al-Qaida and Iran would want nothing more. If we are to win — and I believe that we can — political reconciliation at the national level must be a higher priority for the Iraqi government. I am eager to move forward — in a bipartisan fashion — to support our troops and their general in completing this critical mission.”

On Monday, Petraeus defended America’s recent troop surge. Addressing a House hearing, he said, “Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous,”

His comments came as he testified that Bush’s recent troop buildup has led to measurable successes and should allow a reduction in troop levels by next summer. But it was also a telling commentary on the history of the conflict.

Almost nothing the Bush administration has said about Iraq has panned out.

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

Iraqis did not welcome American troops as “liberators” but as foreign occupiers.

The mission wasn’t accomplished when Bush proclaimed an end to major combat from the deck of an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003. Far from it. More than 3,700 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in March 2003. Only the Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War have lasted longer.

Oil revenues have yet to allow post-Saddam Iraq to sustain itself financially. Billions of U.S. tax dollars are being spent to subsidize the fragile Iraqi government and economy.

A new constitution and national elections did not lead to a stable government that could “govern, sustain and defend itself,” as Bush repeatedly intones.

The chances that Iraq will evolve into a pro-Western democracy seem slight, with anti-Americanism rampant throughout most of Iraq among most ethnic factions.

Petraeus and others have said that the recent troop surge — Bush’s decision in January to send in 30,000 additional troops, bringing the total U.S. military presence to about 160,000 — is working. But it has failed to bring about the sought-after turnaround once predicted for this month.

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