In the firmest indication yet of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, America's most senior general there and its top civilian official have drawn the outlines of a political and military plan that could see a substantial pullout of US troops within 12 to 18 months.
Yesterday's announcement looked like a strategy change carrying implications for British troops in Iraq, although President Bush's aides deny any "dramatic shifts" in policy. It came after Mr Bush's spokesman acknowledged on Monday that the President had cut and run from his signature promise that America would "stay the course" in Iraq.
In a joint press conference in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, laid out a series of political steps that he claimed had been agreed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, including a crackdown on militias, a peace offer to insurgents and a plan for sharing oil revenues. The measures, to be taken over the next year, would amount to a new "national compact" between the Iraqi factions, he said. At the same time, General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, said the training of Iraqi security forces - essential for any orderly US departure - was 75 per cent complete. Within 12 to 18 months, he said, they would emerge as "the dominant force in Iraq", even though some residual US military presence would be needed (as President Bush himself has indicated).
The rare joint press conference took place amid deepening political turmoil in Washington, where leading members of Mr Bush's own Republican party are demanding a radical rethink of US strategy in Iraq. They argue that current policies have all but failed, as sectarian and anti-American violence threaten to overwhelm the country.
Coming after the White House formally abandoned Mr Bush's previous "stay the course" formulation for US policy, the appearance by Mr Khalilzad and General Casey seemed part of a carefully choreographed exercise to signal, without explicitly saying so, that a timetable for pull-out - long rejected by the President - was in fact taking shape.
The clear purpose was twofold: to reassure voters a fortnight before mid-term elections that the administration had a workable policy for Iraq and that, all appearances to the contrary, that policy was achieving some success. Though 90 US troops have been killed this month, and Iraqi civilian deaths are running at 100 a day or more, General Casey maintained that 90 per cent of the attacks were occurring within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad.
But even he acknowledged the timetable was at the mercy of events on the ground, which Washington was largely powerless to shape. American troop levels might actually have to be increased to cope with the continuing violence in Baghdad, where a return to order is vital if the country is to be stabilised.
Tony Blair, in step with US policy, reassured the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, on Monday that the UK would not "cut and run" from Iraq.
The Prime Minister will face a challenge today from backbench MPs who have scheduled a debate on the Iraq exit strategy. But it will not enable MPs to vote on the issue. "We had a debate and a vote to take us into Iraq. We should have one now to take us out," said one Labour MP.
Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, is expected to repeat the Prime Minister's insistence that British troops will stay "until the job is done".
Mr Khalilzad offered no certainty of a political settlement, and mentioned no timetable for disarming the Shia militias. This is the issue which could tear asunder Mr Maliki's government, some of whose members have ties with the largest of the militias.
Instead, Mr Khalilzad outlined a series of steps to be taken within "the coming weeks", including a law on dividing oil revenues, action to achieve "reconciliation" with discontented Sunni Muslims and former Baathists, and a firm date for provincial elections.
But neither the ambassador nor General Casey made clear what might happen if the Iraqi government and the emerging security forces did not live up to US expectations. On both scores, there are strong doubts.
Washington has not disguised its frustration with Mr Maliki's government and its refusal to confront the militias. And it is only eight months since the Pentagon was forced to admit that the only Iraqi battalion deemed capable of fighting on its own had been reclassified as needing the back-up of US forces.
John Pike, the director of the Washington-based studies group Global Security.Org, said: "I think they are saying that Americans are going to be there for 18 more months, but we can start to draw that number down before the next presidential election."
But pressures for a significant pull-out much sooner are intensifying. Iraq threatens to drag Republicans to humiliating defeat at the 7 November elections, while Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has become the latest senior Republican to turn on the White House. He said yesterday: "We're on the verge of chaos."
A poll shows more than two-thirds of Americans think the war was a mistake. A mere 20 per cent believe the US is winning, compared to 40 per cent 12 months ago. In an editorial yesterday, The New York Times said Iraq could become "the worst foreign policy debacle in American history". Stressing what was at stake, Mr Khalilzad called Iraq "the defining challenge of our era" which would "profoundly shape... the future of the world."
A changing message
'The US and our allies have prevailed. Now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country'
President Bush, 1 May 2003
'We must stay the course, because the end result is in our interest'
President Bush, 13 April 2004
'This is not "stay the course" but constant motion '
Bush spokesman, 23 October 2004
'This violence is going to go on for a long time'
Stephen Hadley, US National Security Adviser, yesterday