In the military gym in Baghdad's Green Zone, where U.S. troops relax during their free time, there were three posters behind the front desk last month. One was Time magazine's "Person of the Year," showing the proud faces of three American soldiers; the second was an iconic photograph of Muhammad Ali looming over a defeated opponent; the third, and the largest, was a photograph of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

In the dining hall of the Republican Palace, where the soldiers eat, a painted image of the twin towers forms the background of a large mural. The emblems of the four military services are displayed around the towers and, to reinforce the link between Sept. 11 and Iraq, the mural includes the emblems of the New York police and fire departments. Below the towers are the words, "Thank God for the Coalition Forces and Freedom Fighters at Home and Abroad."

I suspect that if you polled U.S. soldiers in Iraq, this is what they would say they were fighting for: to avenge Sept. 11 and defeat the terrorists who were responsible for it. The characterization of Iraq as a battleground in the war against terrorism has been repeated frequently by President Bush -- so often, in fact, that it has assumed a life and logic of its own.

Most of the soldiers who lift weights and eat breakfast in the shadow of Sept. 11 wouldn't question statements by the president and vice president about prewar links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Yet the Sept. 11 commission, after a careful review, concluded last month that it could find no evidence to support those claims. But nobody has told the soldiers.

The Republican convention this week in New York will reinforce the nation's bond with the events of Sept. 11. Three years after that terrible day, we are surrounded by reminders of the war against Islamic extremism -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in our airports, on our streets. Drive to Washington these days and you'll be greeted by huge electronic messages on the interstates ominously warning drivers: "Report Suspicious Behavior."

Bush, who has defined himself through his role as a "wartime president," has a special responsibility this week to explain how that war is going -- and what strategy he will pursue if he wins a second term. Bush's rival, John Kerry, owes the country the same clarity.

America's dilemma in Iraq now, so obvious that people rarely state it, is that a war meant to contain terrorism has had the effect of creating more of it. Most of the new terrorism is in Iraq itself, which was to be a platform in combating terrorism but has instead become a magnet for it.

The Iraqi cauldron was dramatically captured in an article Sunday in the New York Times about the Taliban-like Sunni fundamentalists who now control western Iraq. When decent Iraqis try to work with the Americans to fight these insurgents, they can meet the fate of the local commander of the Iraqi National Guard, who had his head sawed off.

The administration is sensibly seeking Iraqi solutions, which, unfortunately, don't provide crisp answers. As is so often the case in the Arab world, there is never a final resolution -- only the postponement of a decision to a later day. The three-week battle of Najaf is the latest example. This looked to be a decisive showdown between the insurgent militia of Moqtada Sadr and the U.S.-backed interim government. But just as U.S. and Iraqi forces were near a decisive victory last week that would have powerfully reinforced the interim government, an Iraqi solution emerged. Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani brokered a deal that avoids clear winners or losers.

Facing such reversals in Iraq, what does the Bush administration plan to do in a second term? Will the United States double its bets in Iraq and fight a bloody new war to pacify the country, or will it tolerate more murky but pragmatic Iraqi solutions? Will it expand the war against Islamic militants by threatening Iran and Syria, or will it seek to enlist those nations as allies in maintaining regional stability? Will it accept a broad (and sometimes anti-American) coalition for change in Iraq and the Arab world -- broad enough to include even a Moqtada Sadr -- or will it hunker down with a narrower group of allies?

The truth is that we don't know the Bush administration's plans. We see the twin towers looming in the background, as a powerful symbol of unity and resolve. But to what end? This week Bush should level with the nation about what's ahead. That's an obligation, surely, for a wartime president.

davidignatius@washpost.com