The United States cannot create a free, peaceful and democratic Iraq, and it's time we stopped pretending that we can. Not by ourselves. Not with coalition forces. Not with help from the United Nations. Iraq will become a stable country that respects human rights and the rule of law only if Iraqis themselves want it that way, and only when Iraqis are willing to put their own lives and treasure on the line to help bring it about.

At this stage, a year after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, it's not at all clear that Iraqis are prepared to make that kind of sacrifice, at least not on the same terms asked of American troops fighting and dying in their country. American women and men in uniform, as President Bush rightly observed last year, are bound by a set of values and ideals and allegiance to their country. That's why, when called upon, they make sacrifices.

But what of the Iraqis? What binds them together? What has a call on their loyalty?

Is it a matter of religion, tribe, blood? What will they fight to protect? Do Shiites believe every Sunni life counts? Will Sunnis fight for the unalienable right of Shiites and Kurds to live as free people?

Come June 30, an interim Iraqi government -- its shape and composition yet to be decided -- will take over the wheels of government. Claims that Iraqis share the administration's goals will be put to the test.

Don't be surprised if we learn that the Iraqis' view of the future is at variance with our own, especially where our role in their country is concerned.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, said in a Senate hearing this week that the majority of Iraqis want democracy and are positive about their future, "thanks in large part to the efforts of our servicemen and women." Wishful thinking? Maybe.

A new poll commissioned by the U.S.-led occupation authority showed that 80 percent of Iraqis lacked confidence in American and foreign authorities running their country. What's more, 82 percent said they disapproved of the U.S. and allied militaries in Iraq. If winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is the test, we may be getting a failing grade.

What about shared sacrifice? There are signs many Iraqis don't view the insurgency as consisting of quite the same cast of thugs, militants and terrorists as described by the Bush administration.

Fallujah is a good case in point.

When four U.S. contractors were brutally murdered and mutilated on March 31, the United States vowed to hunt down the Fallujah killers, bring them to justice, rid the town of foreign guerrillas and disarm the gunmen holed up in the city. More than a month later, following weeks of fighting and a siege of the city, U.S. Marines have been ordered to pull back. Today, former Iraqi soldiers -- some of whom may have been firing on Marines -- are patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints, all under the command of a former Iraqi general.

Insurgents arrested to date? None. Foreign guerrillas? Disappeared, say the new Iraqi protectors. Disarmament? Ha!

If Iraqi security forces took up arms against the masked guerrillas sporting rocket-propelled grenades, the press must have missed it. True, shooting at Americans has stopped. But Fallujah is no less an enemy sanctuary today than it was when those contractors were ambushed and murdered. Perhaps that's why the people of Fallujah were seen on TV treating the Marines' withdrawal as a great victory.

The situation is hardly more upbeat in southern Iraq, where U.S. troops are bearing the brunt of the struggle against a militia under the command of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, while strapping young Iraqi men get to go off and play soccer with the Saudis.

What we see happening thus far in places such as Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala is a calculated decision by Iraqi clerics, provincial leaders, and ex-Iraqi army generals and security forces to avoid direct confrontation with insurgents who, as Bush contends, would threaten democracy in Iraq. To the extent Iraqi leaders intervene, it is only to discourage the use of American power and to protect Iraqi lives and property. Useful, perhaps, but it's a far cry from stepping into the fray to bleed and die for the advance of freedom.

Much is made of Iraq's transition to sovereignty and the need to produce a semblance of national government with legal institutions. Of equal concern, at least to me, is the willingness and capacity of Iraqis to take greater responsibility for their own security.

Let's go back to Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's scathing report on abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Attention has rightly focused on the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. But the second part of the Taguba report examined prison escapes and the guarding of detainees. Overshadowed by accounts of abusive American behavior were reports of misbehavior by Iraqi guards themselves.

Taguba said that the loyalty of Iraqi guards was questionable and that they were a potentially dangerous contingent within the prison, to wit: "one of the detainees . . . had gotten a pistol and a couple of knives from an Iraqi Guard working in the encampment"; "an Iraqi guard assisted a detainee to escape by signing him out on a work detail and disappearing with him."

The question of loyalty looms large today in Iraq. Loyalty to what? Allegiance to whom?

Where is the Iraqis' testament to their love of freedom? Where is their commitment to the defense of their country against fellow Iraqis and Arabs who may be insurgents, terrorists and former Hussein loyalists?

We'll know soon enough. Meanwhile, democracy, and the blessings of liberty in Iraq, despite our best efforts, are on hold.

kingc@washpost.com