As America scrambled desperately to find a workable formula to speed the handover of political power in Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, warned yesterday that even with a new government in place US forces might remain in Iraq for two years or more.
Speaking as he arrived for talks in Japan - the latest country to refuse to send troops to join the US-led coalition in Iraq because of rising violence - Mr Rumsfeld reiterated that the political transition would be faster than originally intended. But he admitted that the speed of change would not mean US forces, who now number some 130,000, would leave any earlier.
The future political arrangements for Iraq will top the agenda during President George Bush's discussions with Tony Blair during his state visit next week. But Washington faces a dilemma - how to hand over political control as quickly as possible without being seen to cut and run.
After the sudden recall this week of Paul Bremer, the chief civil administrator in Iraq, for consultations in Washington, it has become clear that the old timetable calling for a constitution before power is transferred has been torn up.
Instead the most likely sequence now is the formation of a new government, drawn in part or whole from the existing US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, followed by elections early next year to a constituent assembly that would draft a permanent constitution for a democratic Iraq. But several members of the 24-man IGC have called for a quick withdrawal of US troops, arguing that their presence only deepens public resentment and boosts sympathy for the resistance that has killed more than 60 US and Allied troops this month alone. A new government, dependent on the continuing military presence envisaged by Mr Rumsfeld, risked appearing a mere puppet of the occupying forces. Douglas Feith, under-secretary of defense for policy, said: "We intend to stay the course in Iraq, but we don't want to rule Iraq."
Mr Feith, the Pentagon's third-ranking civilian official and a leading neo-conservative in the Bush administration, told a meeting of the Council for Foreign Relations that the goal was "to transfer as much authority to Iraqis as soon as possible". But he implicitly criticised the IGC, whose sluggish performance has annoyed many officials in Washington. Mr Feith said the council had accomplished many things but needed to do "much more" - a pointed reference to the December 15 deadline for the IGC to set a timetable for a new constitution, which it may miss.
Washington is determined to present the faster political transition as a plan devised by the Iraqis rather than something imposed on them. For the White House, the important thing is to prevent events slipping out of control at the very moment Democrats are rounding on Mr Bush's handling of Iraq policy. Adding to Mr Bush's problems, a recent poll showed rising public scepticism about the rationale on which he took America to war, with 61 per cent of people saying that more time should have been allocated to the hunt for the alleged weapons of mass destruction.
But Mr Feith was unrepentant about the decision to invade. "Intelligence is never perfect but that's not grounds for inaction," he said yesterday.