The week the war unravelled: Bush to 'refocus' Iraq strategy

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The Independent Online

In a new admission of the mounting crisis in Iraq, President George Bush is to have emergency consultations with his top generals today to see if any change of strategy is needed to cope with the escalating violence in a country seemingly spinning out of control.

Two days after he acknowledged possible similarities between today's Iraq and the Vietnam of a generation ago, Mr Bush said he would be discussing the worsening situation with General John Abizaid, overall US commander for the Middle East, and General George Casey, in command of the 145,000 American troops in Iraq.

"We are constantly adjusting tactics so we can achieve our objectives and right now, it's tough," Mr Bush said. "One of the reasons you're seeing more casualties is the enemy is active and so are our troops."

Mr Bush's words cap an especially disastrous week in the three- and-a-half year war, when the entire Allied strategy has, at times, appeared to be unravelling, amid relentless bloodshed in Iraq and growing political criticism at home, including from top members of his own Republican Party.

It began amid consternation in London and Washington over the remarks of General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, that the presence of foreign troops might be "exacerbating" the situation in Iraq ­ words taken as a call from Britain's top-ranking soldier for a swift pull-out of coalition forces. Caught off balance, Tony Blair first insisted that there would be no withdrawal "until the job was done," claiming that was the view of General Dannatt as well. On Wednesday, only 24 hours later, the Prime Minister was stressing the desire of Britain and the US to leave Iraq as soon as possible ­ citing the opinion of General Casey that Iraqi security forces might be ready to take over in 12 to 18 months.

The same debate raged in Washington. Almost every day brings news of sectarian massacres and military casualties as US troops try in vain to halt the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia and cope with the anti-American insurgency. Seventy-four US soldiers have been killed so far in October, putting the month on course to be the bloodiest since January 2005. The death toll among allied forces this week overtook the number lost in the September 11 attacks.

At the same time, Washington is visibly losing patience with Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Prime Minister, who has been deemed ineffectual and unwilling to take on the Shia militias who now control large areas of the south. Yesterday, the most powerful of the militias, run by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized control of the city of Amarah in their boldest act yet. A day before, US commanders admitted that the joint two-month-old bid by American and Iraqi forces to pacify Baghdad had, in effect, failed, and the security effort would have to be "refocused". A similar process is now under way in America, as President Bush's approval ratings tumble to fresh lows, and Republicans face the prospect of defeat at the mid-term elections on 7 November ­ in both cases primarily as a result of public dislike of a war which 66 per cent of Americans now say was a mistake.

In one sense, the debate is a matter of semantics, the difference between tactics and strategy. Mr Bush repeated to the reporters that US commanders were "constantly adjusting" tactics to achieve their objectives but, his aides insist, the strategy ­ "victory" ­ remains unchanged. It would be "a dereliction of duty" if generals did not adjust tactics to meet a deteriorating situation, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said.

The administration's goal ­ officially ­ is unaltered; to create a stable Iraq that can govern itself and help in the fight against terrorism. That approach will not change. "He [Mr Bush] is not somebody who gets jumpy at polls," Mr Snow declared. But such sweeping assurances no longer satisfy key members of his own party.

The ranks of influential Republican senators and congressmen who proclaim that the present state of affairs cannot long continue are growing by the day.

The key to any change may lie with the independent commission led by the former secretary of state James Baker, which is exploring options for a new Iraq strategy and will deliver its report by January.

These demands gathered force with the unexpected concession by Mr Bush that there "might be" a parallel between the 1968 Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, which turned the US public against that war, and the current upsurge in violence in Iraq.

Among the options being discussed are a phased troop withdrawal, some form of confederation for Iraq (that critics say would amount to partition) and even direct talks with Syria and Iran to assist.

Military options

* Cut and run

The most unlikely option, which would jeopardise the Iraqi government and leave a dangerous vacuum that could be exploited by armed insurgents or Islamist jihadists. An admission of defeat could trigger full civil war and the break-up of Iraq. But British military deaths would be kept down.

* Progressive withdrawal

The likeliest option, but the credibility of Bush/Blair policy to leave only when the "job is done", and security handed to Iraqis, would be undermined by a phased withdrawal while conflict rages.

* Troop reinforcements

The Republican senator John McCain wants 15,000 more US troops to bolster the 132,000 in Iraq. But it seems too late for this option. Would be unpopular with US and British public, so unlikely.

* Negotiations

The US should talk to Iran and Syria, says James Baker, the former US secretary of state, who heads an Iraq study panel at Mr Bush's request. Contacts with insurgent leaders could also be developed. A likely option because the US and UK know a military solution cannot be imposed.

* Confederation

Some politicians and analysts say Shia, Kurdish and Sunni zones should be allowed to develop separately with a weak central government. But given the bitter rivalry this option is likely to lead to civil war and/or a " three-state solution".