As President Bush drew parallels between Iraq and Vietnam for the first time, American commanders publicly admitted yesterday that a two-month campaign by US and Iraqi forces to end the violence in Baghdad had to all intents and purposes failed.
The grim assessment, by Major General William B Caldwell, the military spokesman, came as at least 38 Iraqis were killed in bombings in the north of the country and the Pentagon announced that two more American soldiers had been killed on Wednesday, following 11 losses the previous day. October is shaping up as the deadliest month for US troops in Iraq in almost two years and the overall death toll since the March 2003 invasion now approaches 2,800.
The Baghdad security crackdown, announced amid much fanfare in August, "did not meet our overall expectations," and the latest surge in violence, over Ramadan, had been "disheartening" according to Maj Gen Caldwell. Security efforts in Baghdad were now being "refocused". He also explicitly linked the attacks with next month's mid-term elections in the US, where Mr Bush's Republicans are facing heavy losses.
The President acknowledged in a TV interview with ABC News that, "it could be right" to say the violence in Iraq was the equivalent of the 1968 Tet Offensive, which helped turned US public opinion against the Vietnam war.
"There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence," the Mr Bush said, "and we're heading into an election."
Yesterday the White House was playing down the remarks, stressing the President did not mean to imply that a similar turning point in the Iraq war had arrived.
"We don't think that there's been a flip-over point," Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said. "From ... the standpoint of this administration, we're going to continue pursuing victory aggressively."
The allusion to the Tet Offensive was a real departure for Mr Bush, who hitherto refused to accept any similarities between Iraq and the war in Vietnam, which lasted eight years and claimed more than 55,000 American lives.
The conflict in Iraqhas become an albatross around Republican candidates' necks as they struggle to retain control of Congress in the 7 November elections. An unprecedented 35 per cent of registered voters plan to express their opposition to Mr Bush, against just 18 per cent who said they would be voting to support the President.
Some Republicans are joining calls from the Demo-crats for a phased withdrawal from Iraq and the idea is being examined by the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan commission headed by the former Secretary of State James Baker which is due to report at the end of the year.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, has prom-ised a reduction in American forces, "in the months ahead". But Mr Bush told ABC that some of the 145,000 US troops in Iraq would still be there when he left office in January 2009.
Complicating matters is the evident tension between Washington and the Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki, whose failure to restore security has been the object of growing criticism in the US - so much so that the Iraqi Prime Minister sought reassurances last week from Mr Bush that the US was not pulling the rug out from under his government.
According to Maj Gen Caldwell, US troops had been forced this week to release Mazin al-Sa'edi, a senior lieutenant of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, only a day after he had been taken into custody on suspicion of "illegal" activities. The demand that he be freed had come from Mr Maliki, the US spokesman said. A further source of friction is a partial amnesty sought by US officials.
"There's going to end up being an amnesty," Mr Rumsfeld said, "not for people with blood on their hands, but for those who opposed the government." After initial enthusiasm, the Maliki government has been dragging its feet on the issue.Reuse content