Pressure mounts for new Iraq strategy

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Indy Politics

Pressure is mounting on George Bush to order a rapid change of course in Iraq as the world waits to see whether the Republicans' devastating electoral defeat will hasten a withdrawal of US and British forces.

Licking his wounds from Tuesday's damning rejection of his Iraq policy, Mr Bush again claimed the conflict there was a central front in the so-called war on terror. Yet he signalled he was open to suggestions on how best to proceed in Iraq - a task that will be largely led by his newly minted Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, who has been nominated to replace Donald Rumsfeld. "Whatever party we come from, we all have a responsibility to ensure that [our] troops have the resources and support they need to prevail," he said in the White House Rose Garden, accompanied by most of his Cabinet. "I'm open to any idea or suggestion that will help us achieve our goals of defeating the terrorists and ensuring that Iraq's democratic government succeeds."

Mr Bush - who just the day before admitted that Iraq was "not working well enough, fast enough" - is likely to be awaiting the report of the former secretary of state James Baker, who is heading a group looking into possible options for the US. Mr Baker's report is not expected before the end of the year but reported leaks suggest it will call for talks with countries such as Syria and Iran about a solution.

The group's bipartisan suggestions may give Mr Bush some political cover for whatever steps he decides to take.

There are fears in London that Britain will have little influence over the rethink of US strategy in Iraq. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, sought to rebuff those calling for a cut and run approach. "We are at a critical juncture, at which the fate of that country hangs in the balance," she said. "There is the very real risk of even greater instability and bloodshed than we have already seen.

"I ask those who are calling for more precipitate action to consider the consequences of such action: we would be leaving the Iraqi government without the means to prevent a further escalation in the violence, without the tools to enforce the rule of law and without the authority to prevent their country turning into a base for terrorism. We must not let that happen. In both Afghanistan and Iraq we have to have the courage of our convictions."

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador to Washington, said the US must not make unilateral decisions. "It would be a recipe for even greater mayhem if we go careering off in one direction and the United States in another," he said. Experts point out, however, that at this stage, having made so many tactical mistakes, there are no easy or painless options for the Bush administration.

After violence that has led to the deaths of more than 2,800 US troops, 120 British soldiers and perhaps as many as 655,000 Iraqis, events are now largely out of US control. Indications suggest that the violence - the sectarian killing as well as the anti-US insurgency - is getting worse. Tom Lantos, the Democratic congressman who will take control of the House International Relations Committee told The Washington Post he doubted the Baker report would offer anything very new. "You can't unscramble the omelette and the tremendous mistakes that were made after major military operations," he said. "I don't see any magical solutions."

Some Democrats, such as John Murtha, a former marine, have called for an immediate withdrawal of troops, something supported by many peace activists such as Jeff Leys of the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness. "I'm not convinced the presence of US troops is adding to the safety of the Iraqi people," said Mr Leys.

Others, such as the former presidential candidate John Kerry have called for a timetabled withdrawal, claiming this would increase the preparedness of Iraqi forces to take over from American troops. But there are serious doubts about the progress being made in training Iraqi forces. Some commentators believe the presence of American and British troops exacerbates the situation - a point made last month by the British Army chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt.