The most critical decision Iraq's new government will make after June 30 will be on the status of Coalition forces. It will tell us whether we should stay on to help rebuild the country — or pack up our rucksacks and leave.

The transfer of power may prove, God willing, to be good news for Iraq, but it's already bad news for our troops and the War on Terror. To further their own political interests, Iraqi officials will demand a say in our military operations.

If their approach is practical and realistic, we can work together. But if every junior clerk in the Ministry of Graft has to sign off on our plans to apprehend terrorists and battle insurgents, we should begin withdrawing our forces as soon as we can get the first transport aircraft into Baghdad International.

Iraq matters. But if it doesn't matter sufficiently to Iraq's own leaders for them to support our struggle against the forces wrecking the country's future, we shouldn't waste the life of another soldier.

A rational degree of freedom of action should be the quid pro quo for our continued presence — and further funding. There's a grave danger that Iraq's non-elected leaders will attempt to turn our forces into their palace guard as demagogues jockey for advantage at the expense of the masses.

We cannot afford to remain in the desert twiddling our thumbs while the ranks of terror swell. If we can't fight, we should leave.

Our enemies grasp a fundamental truth about this struggle that we have yet to recognize: If you're not attacking, you're losing. Defense is never enough. You're either on the offensive, or you're being defeated.

In classical military theory — per Clausewitz — the defense is inherently the stronger form of warfare. Attackers require a multiple of three to one or greater to overcome the defenders' advantages. The assault force is expected to suffer higher casualties.

Terror changed the rules. On 9/11, the attackers were outnumbered millions to one. They overran our defenses before we realized they were there. The casualties were overwhelmingly on our side. In this war, if you're not winning, you're losing. There is no equilibrium with terror, no stalemate, no middle path.

We must remain ferociously aggressive in Iraq and around the globe. There can be no "operational pause." Any halt to catch our breath is interpreted by our enemies as a sign of incipient defeat. Doing nothing — the Clinton-era approach — is the greatest aid of all to terror's recruiters.

For their part, our enemies have been battling to regain the initiative — which we allowed them to do in Fallujah — in order to convince potential supporters that their cause isn't hopeless, that the tide hasn't turned against them. Terrorists can't defend, except in tactical firefights. If they aren't striking dramatic blows, they have neither visibility nor credibility. Terrorism thrives on graphic events.

If our troops in Iraq are stymied by a web of political deals and need to ask, "Mother, may I?" before confronting terrorists, they'll be condemned to lethal inactivity — turned into targets with bound hands. Morale will plummet. And their lives will be wasted.

We are not in Iraq solely for the sake of Iraq's politicians — and they need reminding of it. We're there in our own interest, as well as in the cause of freedom. If our support for the new Iraq doesn't result in Iraqi support for the War on Terror, we'll need to cut our losses — in blood and money.

We owe Baghdad nothing. Nothing. We've already given Iraq an unprecedented chance to build a humane society and a decent government. If, despite our sacrifices, the Iraqis revert to greed, bigotry and tribalism, we'll need to face the reality of yet another homemade Arab failure and "stand not upon the order of [our] going, but go."

We can't afford to have the lion's share of our ground forces immobilized indefinitely in the sands of Mesopotamia to no good purpose. If our troops are not allowed to do that which is necessary — without a hundred permission slips — we need to bring them home to prepare for the challenges of the future. In a world war with the forces of bigotry and superstition, we can't afford to baby-sit a political mafia in Baghdad.

It's up to the Iraqis. If their leaders make an earnest effort to build an equitable, rule-of-law, democratic state after June 30, they deserve our support — unless they try to put our soldiers on so short a leash that terrorists are encouraged to spread through the land.

But if the Iraqis lack the guts to stand up for their own freedom, we needn't hang around to watch as the country bleeds to death, unwilling to apply its own tourniquet.

Much remains to be hammered out, of course, from the mechanics of coordinating military operations to a status-of- forces agreement. But beyond June 30, the future depends on the Iraqis far more than it does on us. If they choose to fail, we need not go down with them.

A century ago, then-Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood wrote simply, "The purpose of an Army is to fight." If the Iraqis don't want our soldiers to fight our mutual enemies, we shouldn't let our troops become the prisoners of a doomed effort.

Ralph Peters is the author of "Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace."