Bush still sees no reason to apologise

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If anyone was looking for even the slightest hint of second thoughts from those led the US into Iraq, they would have been sorely disappointed on the third anniversary of a war that is eating into America's soul and that may well reshape its political landscape.

More sacrifice would be required, but "our goal is nothing less than complete victory", President George Bush declared in his weekly radio address yesterday.

Ignore the doom-mongering, Dick Cheney urged his countrymen on CBS's Face the Nation programme. This was no civil war; rather the insurgents had reached "a stage of desperation". On both the security and political fronts, Iraq was showing "major progress".

Writing in The Washington Post, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary - blamed by many for the absence of post-invasion planning - was equally unrepentant. The big picture would be determined by history, "not by daily headlines, website blogs, or the latest sensational attack", Mr Rumsfeld declared. To retreat now would be "the modern equivalent of handing post-war Germany back to the Nazis, or of asking the former Communist states of eastern Europe to return to Soviet domination because the West did not have the patience to see through the job of turning them into free countries".

The plain fact, however, is that back in March 2003, almost no Bush administration policy-maker could even imagine that yesterday the country would be in agonising debate over a conflict three years old with no end in sight - in an Iraq that even the pro-American former prime minister Iyad Allawi said was in the midst of a civil war.

When Mr Bush triumphantly proclaimed an end to the war in May 2003 from the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, the Pentagon's expectation was that by the end of that year no more than 30,000 US troops would be deployed in Iraq. Today 130,000 are still there - and General George Casey, the senior US commander in the country, warned yesterday that he saw "a couple of more years of this". The war has been a drain on American blood, treasure and morale. As of yesterday, at least 2,311 US servicemen had died there, and more than 13,000 had been wounded. By the end of 2006, the conflict will have cost $320bn (£183bn).

The psychological cost is unquantifiable, but enormous. For a minority the war has brought bereavement and personal sadness. Half of all Americans know someone who has served in Iraq; some 10 per cent of them had a relative or friend who had been killed or wounded there, according to a poll by USA Today.

Mr Bush's place in history will be determined by his decision to invade. Back in March 2003, his approval ratings stood at 70 per cent. Now they have dropped to less than 40 per cent. Two-thirds of the public believes the country is "on the wrong track". Iraq sweeps every other issue off the table.

This November's mid-term elections meanwhile may well turn into a referendum on Iraq, and the Republican Party may lose control of either the House of Representatives or the Senate, conceivably both.

Even among the Republican faithful, support for Mr Bush is starting to erode. "If you demand complete victory, you'll never leave," Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who is mulling a 2008 White House run, said yesterday.

The war, he declared, was helping to bankrupt the country. "And if you ask, are we better off, is the Middle East more stable than three years ago, the answer is, 'Absolutely not'."