Leading article: Mistake, retreat and shame

It has been a long time since even Tony Blair expressed optimism about the state of Iraq. We have to go back as far as January 2004 to find an unqualified assertion that the invasion was "the only way to establish long-term peace and stability". He told British troops in Basra that people in Iraq and around the world "will look back on what you have done and give thanks, and recognise that they owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude". That seemed implausible at the time, and is much less likely now. You have to go back even further to find the Prime Minister asserting that things were getting better for Iraqis.

If Mr Blair were still confident of the rightness of his decision, he could claim that the Battle of Amarah over the last few days proved this newspaper wrong. He could say that the fighting shows that not all the violence in Iraq is caused by the presence of foreign troops. In Amarah it was prompted by their absence, by the withdrawal of British forces in August. The trouble is that this would also mean contradicting General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, who said that the British presence "exacerbates" the security situation. And it would, therefore, require Mr Blair to contradict himself, as he was forced, humiliatingly, to say that he agreed with "every word" that the general had said.

The larger truth, of course, is that the Battle of Amarah is a ghastly illustration of the depths of the bloody crisis into which the US-British intervention has plunged Iraq. If British soldiers stay in Amarah, they are a target for "resistance". If they pull out, the militias aligned with different Shia factions fight for control. As we argued last week, the south of Iraq is at the point where the bloodshed of our staying is roughly the same as that of going. Neither course is ideal; both courses are a vivid confirmation of the folly of invading Iraq in the first place.

This newspaper argued against the invasion three years ago, partly on the grounds that it was disastrous to go in without a credible plan for getting out again. No such plan existed, and it still does not. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is paralysed by the mid-term elections next month. And the Blair government is paralysed by not knowing in which direction the US is heading.

Yet the brazenness of Mr Bush and Mr Blair knows few bounds. The President has assembled his generals this weekend in order to give the impression before Americans go to the polls that there might be a third way between "stay the course" and "cut and run", as James Baker, the Bush family troubleshooter, hinted. Meanwhile Mr Blair deploys all his verbal dexterity to re-interpret Sir Richard's words in a way that makes them compatible with his own. This exercise in semantics cannot forever bridge the gap between staying in and pulling out. Last week Mr Blair said that he, and Sir Richard, want to "get the job done as soon as possible". But getting the job done - whatever that might once have meant - looks like becoming harder to achieve over time.

As Saul David observes on page 30, the lesson of history is that withdrawal is inevitable and that, beyond a certain point, staying in a situation like Iraq for domestic political reasons only makes matters progressively worse. The British forces in southern Iraq are at or near that point now. They should pull out within 12 months, and the Americans will follow in due course - when Mr Bush's successor is elected, if not sooner. Mr Bush and Mr Blair know that their strategy in Iraq is not working, and they are clearly in the early stages of preparing people for disengagement along the lines of one of the oldest devices of military history: to declare victory and leave.

Get ready for a whole new lexicon of weasel words - drawdown, redeployment, or, as Mr Bush said last week, "our tactics are adjusting" - to describe the miserable reality of mistake, retreat and shame.