Stay or go? Not an easy choice

Stay the course or pull out now? Pump in more U.S. troops or punch up the training of Iraqi soldiers?

In the roiling, increasingly rancorous debate about what America should do next in the war in Iraq, those are some of the options being weighed.

Here is a look at the pros and cons of several exit strategies:

– Stay the Course.

Pro: As President Bush reiterated in a speech Wednesday, this is the long-held administration policy. Keep a beefed-up U.S. force of about 150,000 in Iraq until after the Dec. 15 national elections there. Then, if relative calm prevails, about 20,000 GIs would come home in the spring. By the end of 2006, the force would be whittled to about 100,000, with some deployed in neighboring Kuwait.

Meanwhile, the training of Iraqi troops and police would be ramped up, and more and more sections of the country would be transferred to sole Iraqi control. No deadline will be set, but once Iraq is capable of defending its security, the United States will leave. “We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory,” Bush said.

Supporters: Aside from the Bush administration, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace and most of the senior U.S. military leadership back this approach, which they say is working despite negative media and partisan portrayals to the contrary. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some top Shiite Iraqi leaders endorsed the strategy Nov. 20.

Con: Opponents in Congress and elsewhere say the current policy is a failure, given the continuing death toll of American troops and Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The large U.S. presence is actually stoking the flames of the insurgency and accomplishing little more than providing an array of targets for an enemy that is getting better and better at building bombs. Fears of a civil war have already come true because Sunni and Shiite Iraqis have begun a low-intensity war against each other.

– Get Out Now.

Pro: Bush administration lies led the United States to war in Iraq, an invasion that has left America a pariah in much of the world. Ending the occupation immediately would not only save thousands of U.S. and Iraqi lives but also help restore the nation’s tarnished image.

Rather than quelling terrorism, the war opened the door for Abu Musab Zarqawi to create a terrorist haven in Iraq, which would not have existed if there had been no invasion. Some polls of Iraqi public opinion show a majority wants America to leave quickly.

The administration is exaggerating the level of Iraqi army and police readiness to take over the anti-insurgent fight, which could take as long as 10 years. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is already overstretched and cannot keep up the pace for much longer.

Supporters: Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., has emotionally advocated the withdrawal of U.S. forces in six months. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California announced her support Wednesday after Bush’s speech. War protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and an array of anti-war groups want the United States out post-haste, as do Iraqi Sunni leaders and sizable numbers of Iraqi citizens.

“Iraq cannot be won militarily,” Murtha said. “I have concluded that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding” progress toward peace in Iraq.

Con: Not only would a fast U.S. exit likely spark a furious Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq, it could also spread instability across the region, with Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey pulled into the vacuum and Islamic extremism bolstered at the expense of budding democracies. A pullout would also give credence to Osama bin Laden’s contention that, because America has no stomach for war casualties, the insurgents can prevail if they just keep drawing U.S. blood.

– Add More U.S. Troops.

Pro: From the start, the United States has waged the war with too few soldiers. What has been needed, and no more so than now, is an infusion of sufficient numbers of U.S. forces to not only rout insurgents from their lairs but also to hold the territory to prevent them from re-infiltrating once the GIs move on to clear another area.

More soldiers also are needed to seal the borders to prevent foreign fighters from crossing and to protect oil pipelines and other infrastructure. The administration has done the troops no favor by bowing to political sensitivity and minimizing the ranks. Supporters: U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and many mid-level U.S. military leaders serving in Iraq.

Con: Given the misgivings many Americans have about the war, boosting troop levels now would never fly politically in Congress or elsewhere. Plus, Pentagon leaders worry that putting more soldiers on the ground could actually hurt morale by taking more active-duty and especially part-time troops away from their families.

– Gradual Withdrawal With a Firm Timetable.

Pro: A firm commitment to a slow but steady pullout over the next year or two would send an important message to Iraqis, insurgents and the world: The United States has no interest in remaining in Iraq over the long term. It would signal to the American people that there is an end in sight to the war.

With the promise to bring the last U.S. troops home in 2007, this approach would also spur the Iraqi political and military leadership to accelerate their efforts at self-determination. At the same time, U.S. soldier combat deaths would decline.

Supporters: Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and other centrist Democrats in Congress.

Con: Because it sets a definite timetable, this strategy risks turning over the country to Iraqi leaders even if they can’t manage their own security. Insurgents, too, would be emboldened by firm target dates to just wait out the U.S. departure and then escalate their attacks.