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Tipping Point for War's Supporters?

"They reminded me of some of the things Senator Levin has been saying for some time," Cornyn said last week. "We fought to allow Iraqis to control their own future, and I'm a little concerned about our making demands on them as if we are an occupying force."

In Iraq, meanwhile, the key moment was the realization by top commanders in mid-October that sending 12,000 U.S. troops back into Baghdad did not have the calming effect that had been hoped for. As Shiite-Sunni tensions erupted in the city, civilian casualties doubled in a matter of months, with 2,660 deaths in September alone.

"Operation Together Forward has made a difference in the focus areas, but has not met our overall expectations of sustaining a reduction in the levels of violence," Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said Oct. 19, using the U.S. military name for the Baghdad operation. In other words, the U.S. military had played its ace in the hole -- it had asserted itself in Iraq's most important city -- yet had not been able to improve deteriorating security in the capital.

A Marine colonel said he is seeing a major shift even inside the military. "There's a concern now that there wasn't previously," said the colonel, who remains on active duty and is not authorized to speak publicly on political matters. "Folks that took things at face value in the past are asking more questions."

Searching for a way out, Washington has focused new attention on the work of the Iraq Study Group, a panel of well-connected luminaries led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). Recommendations from the group, once seen as a sop to Congress, are expected in late December or early January and promise to be the first major subject tackled by the members of the next Congress.

People familiar with the group's option papers expect it to recommend either a scaling back of U.S. ambitions in Iraq, making stability rather than democracy the top priority, or, less likely, a slow but steady withdrawal of U.S. forces.

In the wake of Warner's revelation and the unchecked violence in Iraq, Bush's language in discussing the war changed markedly. As late as the end of August, he was still describing his policy as "stay the course." But with Democrats pounding away in campaign advertising, saying he refused to recognize the unfolding disaster in Iraq, the White House officially jettisoned the phrase this month, saying it did not adequately describe the administration's flexible approach.

"We've never been 'stay the course,' " Bush told an interviewer. The concept will not die that easily, though. On Friday night, Vice President Cheney told reporters traveling with him on Air Force Two that "the United States' ability to stay the course and get the job done is a very, very important piece of business."

As congressional Republicans peeled away from the president, the White House grew more isolated. Debate over a National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iraq had become a "cause celebre" for Islamic extremists and several books critical of the administration's handling of the war kept interfering with the White House message.

Democrats, once deeply divided over the war, coalesced around the idea of a phased withdrawal and aired television ads on Iraq in most of the competitive races around the country. Republican candidates, on the other hand, started ignoring Karl Rove's advice to talk about the war. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told an interviewer that "the challenge is to get Americans to focus on pocketbook issues, and not on the Iraq and terror issue."

Other conservatives grew more skeptical that there is anything the United States can now do to fix Iraq. "I don't know what the new course would be," said Richard N. Perle, former head of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and an early supporter of the war. "The options are extremely limited now. The new course that's necessary is new Iraqi leadership."

The last full week of October underscored the fitful attempts by the White House to get on top of the situation. U.S. officials announced plans for benchmarks for Iraqis to assume more security duties, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his government had not agreed to any deadlines. Bush called his second news conference in as many weeks to assure the American public that he is "not satisfied" with the way things are going, while still asserting that "absolutely, we're winning."

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