Leading article: A change of tack on both sides of the Atlantic

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Suddenly, all those tough words about staying the course in Iraq are mutating into an incipient debate about an exit strategy. This is highly inconvenient for George Bush and Tony Blair, both of whom were on parade yesterday in their separate capitals, with twin pledges about it being imperative to get the job done and now not being the time to "walk away". The times, though, seem to be moving implacably against them.

Little exemplifies the change of mood more than the reports emanating from a high-powered task force set up by the US Congress to review the effectiveness of US policy in Iraq. While the cross-party panel will not submit its report before early next year, two potentially incendiary recommendations have reached the public domain. The first is that "staying the course" should be summarily abandoned in favour of large troops withdrawals. The second is that Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran, should be invited to send forces to Iraq in the hope that they would be able to halt the fighting.

It hardly needs to be said that both proposals sound like counsels of last resort. And they would surely have stretched credulity, were it not for the identity of the panel's chairman. He is none other than James Baker, whose lifelong loyalty and benevolence towards the Bush clan is a matter of record. Mr Baker served as Secretary of State and chief of staff to George W Bush's father and is respected as the architect of the former President Bush's pragmatic approach to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

He was one of the Republican grandees who initiated the legendary fund-raising efforts in support of George W. Bush's bid for the White House. And when the 2000 election was at a stalemate in Florida, it was his personal network and advocacy skills that the Bush clan called upon to pursue George W's claim through the US courts. Two years later, reportedly at the behest of George Bush Snr, he offered some cautionary words about the risks of invading Iraq. As one of those who had advised the first President Bush against continuing to Baghdad in 1991, his words carried weight. Once George Bush Jnr decided to invade Iraq, nonetheless, however, Mr Baker loyally declined to break ranks. If he made his misgivings known, he did so behind the firmly closed doors of the Oval Office.

Now it may be that, with their advance hints about withdrawal and engaging members of the "axis of evil", Mr Baker's panel may be preparing the US public for a sharp change of policy on Iraq after the mid-term congressional elections in three weeks' time. It is clear, however, that views in certain influential circles are changing, on both sides of the Atlantic. The arguments advanced by the Baker panel bear a striking resemblance to the reasoning of the Chief of the General Staff of the British army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, last week. His central point - not a new point, but new coming with the weight of his authority - was that foreign troops entered Iraq uninvited, and are now a significant cause of the violence. The clear inference was that withdrawal should happen sooner rather than later.

The timing of Gen Dannatt's remarks was not kind to Tony Blair, who seems still to hope that the British public will be won over to his way of thinking about Iraq before he leaves office. In terms of short-term politics, however, the timing of the hints from the Baker panel was even less kind to George Bush. With mid-term elections less than three weeks away and the two pillars of his presidency - the war on terrorism and family values - looking increasingly fragile, the last thing he needed was for someone of James Baker's eminence to suggest the need for major rethinking on Iraq.

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