President George Bush said yesterday that America was on course for "complete victory" and he ruled out any firm timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Instead he declared that Iraqi forces were beginning to take the lead in the battle against the insurgency.
In a speech aimed squarely at restoring morale on the home front, and to meet the growing clamour for a pull-out, Mr Bush set out what critics say he has conspicuously failed to deliver: a clear exit strategy from the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
In the midst of a war that has cost the lives of more than 2,100 US troops and in which public opinion has turned decisively against the President, he was trying to persuade the home front that despite evidence to the contrary, they were winning.
Victory would come, he said, thanks to the same Iraqi forces which critics say are demoralised, divided and ineffective. In front of a cheering audience at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Mr Bush held out the prospect of a gradual troop withdrawal, under a new approach that would mean US soldiers moving out of Iraqi cities and making fewer patrols, leaving that to newly trained Iraqi soldiers and police. "As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop level in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists," Mr Bush said.
Standing before a gold and blue banner proclaiming "Plan For Victory", the President added that decisions about troop levels would be dictated by conditions on the ground in Iraq and the judgement of US commanders, "not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington".
In practical terms, neither the 30-minute speech, nor a 35-page National Strategy for Victory in Iraq issued by the administration beforehand, offered great novelty. The aim was to convince Americans deeply sceptical about the handling of a war that has taken the lives of so many US troops and is costing $6bn (£3.47bn) a month, that the White House had a policy beyond a mantra-like repetition of "stay the course".
Polls show a majority of Americans think the US is bogged down in a Vietnam-like conflict that has made the US more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism, and Mr Bush's approval ratings have slumped to a dismal 37 per cent, the lowest of his presidency.
The key to the conflict, Mr Bush says, is that the Iraqis themselves assume responsibility for securing their country. He acknowledged there had been "some setbacks" in the creation of a capable force, and that the performance of Iraqi troops was "still uneven in some areas". But progress was being made, the President declared, claiming more than 120 army and police battalions (average strength 700) were ready to fight unaided, and 80 more battalions were in combat beside coalition forces.
These figures are hotly contested by critics (and challenged even by many US commanders) who say only a handful of Iraqi units are able to fight on their own and morale is low.
Republicans hailed the speech as a clear and realistic blueprint for the future, but Democrats were scathing. Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, accused Mr Bush of "recycling his tired rhetoric of 'stay the course'." He had "again missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home".
Senator Edward Kennedy described the speech as "a continuation of a political campaign to shore up the failed policies in Iraq ... It does not respond to what the American people want."
Mr Bush portrayed Iraq as "the central front" in the war on terror, saying a precipitate US departure would send the wrong signal to its enemies. "Pulling our troops out before they achieve their purpose is not a plan for victory," he said. "America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins as long as I am your commander-in-chief."
There were a few hints of change, but on tactics, not on underlying strategy. "If by 'stay the course' they mean we will not allow the terrorists to break our will, they're right," he said. "If by 'stay the course' they mean we will not permit al-Qa'ida to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, they're right as well." But if critics interpreted 'stay the course' as an inability to learn from experience, "then they're flat wrong".
The new White House document defines who the US sees as the enemy in Iraq. The largest group are "rejectionists", primarily Sunnis who prospered under Saddam Hussein. The document says this resistance will diminish if a democratic government that emerges from the December elections protects minority rights.
The second group are "Saddamists", former regime members who kept influence. Their power, says the administration, will prove no match for better-organised Iraqi forces.
The White House has dropped its insistence that foreign fighters were the main foe and now concedes that terrorists linked to al-Qa'ida are the smallest component of the insurgency.
nThe first female suicide bomber of European origin was identified yesterday when prosecutors said a Belgian-born woman was the perpetrator of an attack on US forces in Baghdad earlier this month. The woman, thought to be 37 or 38 years old, is said to have gone to Iraq to carry out the attack after marrying a radical Muslim and converting. Identified only by her first name, either Mireille or Muriel, the women is said to have come from southern Belgian city of Charleroi.
What the President said... and the reality of the war
'Our strategy in Iraq is clear. Our tactics are flexible and dynamic. We have changed them as conditions required and they are bringing us victory against a brutal enemy.'
After two-and-a-half years of war, nobody in Iraq believes the US is winning against the insurgents who have the active or passive support of the five million-strong Sunni Arab community. A key objective for Mr Bush is troop reduction and convincing the public the administration has a "strategy". No-one anticipates withdrawal of all troops any time soon.
'This war is going to take many turns. And the enemy must be defeated on every battlefield. Yet the terrorists have made it clear that Iraq is the central front in their war against humanity. And so we must recognise Iraq as the central front in the war on terror.'
The supporters of al-Qa'ida now have a haven in Iraq which they did not have before the war. Prior to invasion, there was no serious al-Qa'ida presence in Iraq. CIA director Porter Goss said that "Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-US jihadists." Mr Bush has admitted that al-Qa'ida accounts for only a tiny part of the insurgency. The aim of the bulk of the insurgency appears to be localised - namely driving out the US.
'Iraqi security forces are on the offensive against the enemy, cleaning out areas controlled by the terrorists and Saddam loyalists, leaving Iraqi forces to hold territory taken from the enemy, and following up with targeted reconstruction to help Iraqis rebuild their lives.'
The US has been taking territory from the insurgents since the start of the fighting but the war is still intensifying. There is little sign of reconstruction.
'Iraqi forces are earning the trust of their countrymen who are willing to help them in the fight against the enemy. As the Iraqi forces grow in number, they're helping to keep a better hold on the cities taken from the enemy. And as Iraqi forces grow more capable, they're increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the terrorists.'
Iraq is getting closer to outright civil war. Sunnis are terrified of Shia troops and police. The Kurds want to reclaim Kirkuk. Each side has its death squads. John Pike, a military analyst, said it was impossible to assess the ability of Iraqi forces. "If they're saying there has been a change around and American forces are not taking the lead, but that Iraqi units are taking the lead, then it's difficult to understand why they are still shipping home so many body-bags."
'At this time last year there were only a handful of Iraqi battalions ready for combat. Now there are over 120 Iraqi army and police combat battalions in the fight against the terrorists, typically comprised of between 350 and 800 Iraqi forces.'
Iraqi government officials say that without US support they could not hold much of Baghdad. Many Iraqi units are "ghost battalions", the number of soldiers inflated by commanders who pocket the pay of non-existent men.
'These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington. Some are calling for a deadline for withdrawal. Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere, but I believe they're sincerely wrong.'
He could scarcely say anything else, to talk of a timetable to pull out would have pointed to US desperation to extricate itself. The leader of the Sunni - the core of the uprising - say armed resistance will continue until the US pulls out. But the recent demand by some Iraqi parties for a timetable to pull out may be part of the choreography that will, in practice, hand Bush an opportunity to discuss withdrawal.
Patrick Cockburn and Andrew BuncombeReuse content