Top Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill savaged Condoleezza Rice on President Bush's plans to send 21,500 extra troops to Iraq - the opening skirmish in what bodes to be the fiercest struggle over war powers between Congress and the White House since Vietnam.
The decision to expand the US force was a "tragic mistake," Joe Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, as he opened proceedings yesterday, while Ms Rice warned of the disastrous consequences of an American failure in Iraq.
But Mr Biden was positively gentle in comparison to his Republican colleague Chuck Hagel, who vowed to "resist" the President's latest plan - "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the country since Vietnam".
As Ms Rice listened stony-faced, a smattering of applause broke out in the public gallery - a tiny testament to the unease among ordinary Americans at a war that has now lasted longer than US involvement in the Second World War.
The independent-minded Mr Hagel - a possible contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination - has often criticised Mr Bush's handling of Iraq, but never as harshly. More important, he is the most outspoken among sceptics from the President's own party in the Senate, where perhaps no more than a dozen of the 49 Republicans wholeheartedly support the new strategy. By common consent of US commentators yesterday, Mr Bush has taken an enormous political gamble with his decision to send what amounts to six combat brigades to Baghdad and al-Anbar province, stronghold of the Sunni insurgency - risking an escalation in American and Iraqi casualties, with no guarantee of success, either in the short or long term.
The doubts burst out at the committee hearings, as John Kerry heard out Ms Rice's defence of the "surge" policy, only to ask: "What if it doesn't work?" To which the Secretary of State tartly replied: "You don't go to plan B before plan A has been given a chance."
Even so, she acknowledged that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi premier, was "in a sense on borrowed time".
Robert Gates, the new Secretary of Defence, made the same point more bluntly when he testified at a separate hearing before the House Armed Services Committee. The almost four-year-old war was at "the pivot point," he said, warning that Washington might not go ahead with the full deployment if it became clear quickly that Mr Maliki was either unwilling or unable to keep his end of the bargain.
This involves the launch of political moves to rebuild Sunni confidence in his Shia-led government, as well as the despatch of three more brigades of Iraqi government forces to violence-plagued parts of Baghdad, who would crack down on all insurgents and militias, Sunni and Shia alike.
Underlining the bleak national mood, an ABC News-Washington Post poll this week found that 70 per cent of Americans opposed sending additional forces, while 65 per cent believe the original invasion was a mistake.
In his 20-minute address on Wednesday night, a sombre Mr Bush also acknowledged how critical the moment was, admitting with rare directness that the US had not had enough troops in Iraq, and that "if mistakes have been made, the responsibility lies with me".
Yesterday he took his message to Fort Benning base in Georgia, where thousands of the troops are expected to be deployed in the coming weeks. "Now is the time to act," he declared, admitting results might not be "immediate".
As the rift between the executive and legislative branches deepened, the question is how far the new Democratic majorities in both House and Senate press their challenge. Thus far, fearful of doing anything to undermine the 132,000 US troops already on the ground in Iraq, only a few favour the option of moving to cut off funding for the mission, as happened in Vietnam. Almost certainly, Democrats will try to pass resolutions opposing the troop build-up. Though non-binding, any such resolution would be acutely embarrassing for the White House.Reuse content