UK soldier hurt as rebels blast convoy

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The Independent Online

A British soldier was fighting for his life last night after his patrol was hit by a roadside bomb near Basra.

The soldier, who underwent emergency surgery, was in one of two armoured Land Rovers caught by the blast on the northern outskirts of Iraq's second-largest city. The vehicle was destroyed.

Yesterday's attack was the third in three weeks in southern Iraq, which has previously been comparatively calm. Three soldiers and two security guards have been killed.

Elsewhere, US and Iraqi troops survived a series of co-ordinated attacks by insurgents Two policemen were killed but there were no US casualties.

This small relief follows a week of mayhem in which 26 US servicemen died - almost half of them from the third battalion of the 25th Marine Regiment headquartered in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio - and has turned the country's attention back to the Iraq campaign.

Americans want out from Iraq. A sign among the flowers and US flags around Brook Park's marine base says: "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home Now."

The sheer power of the roadside bomb on Wednesday, which killed US soldiers and blew their vehicle to smithereens, has not only stunned the public. It has thrust into the debate the whole question of an exit strategy from a conflict that is starting to look like Vietnam.

In terms of geography and politics, Iraq and Vietnam are worlds apart. But today's war is starting to feature the credibility gap between official optimism and bleak reality on the ground that led to defeat in South-east Asia 30 years ago.

Despite mounting military losses, American commanders claim the number of suicide bombings is declining. Last week, the Pentagon was even arguing that the spike in US casualties showed that its forces were coming to grips with the insurgents.

But Americans are less and less inclined to see the war that way. To many, Iraq appears a futile drain on American blood with dubious prospects of success. Approval for President George Bush's handling of the war has slumped to a new low of 38 per cent.

If that perception has not changed by the 2006 mid-term elections, the political implications could be dire for the Republican Party. Last Tuesday, in a Congressional by-election in a rock-solid Republican district in Ohio, an Iraq war veteran who opposed the 2003 invasion almost won the seat for the Democrats.

By the time of the 2008 presidential election the end of US military involvement must be near if voters are not to punish the Republicans for the war.

The Pentagon wants to scale back the US presence to about 40,000 by the end of next year. That figure happens to be the level aimed at by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, in the initial euphoria after the invasion - except that back then Mr Rumsfeld was talking about late 2003, not late 2006.

The administration is taking two big gambles: that the target date can be met for the elections for an Iraqi government and that an Iraqi security force is ready to take over from the departing US troops. Then the White House would be able to claim its mission had been accomplished and - echoing the advice proffered to President Johnson as Vietnam went from bad to worse - simply "declare victory" and withdraw.