The Bush administration has sent seemingly conflicting signals in recent days over the duration of the U.S. deployment to Iraq, openly discussing contingency plans to withdraw as many as 30,000 of 138,000 troops by spring, then cautioning against expectations of any early pullout. Finally yesterday, President Bush dismissed talk of a drawdown as just "speculation and rumors" and warned against "withdrawing before the mission is complete."
If the public was left confused, it may be no more unsure than the administration itself, as some government officials involved in Iraq policy privately acknowledge.
The shifting scenarios reflect the uncertain nature of the mission and the ambiguity of what would constitute its successful completion. For all the clarity of Bush's vow to stay not one day longer than needed, the muddled reality is that no one can say exactly when that will be.
The events of the past week have brought home once again the difficulties confronting the president as he prosecutes what polls suggest is an increasingly unpopular war. With surging violence claiming more U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and the angry mother of a dead soldier camping out near his ranch in Texas, Bush plainly cannot count on indefinite public patience.
Administration officials have all but given up any hope of militarily defeating the insurgents with U.S. forces, instead aiming only to train and equip enough Iraqi security forces to take over the fight themselves. At the same time, they believe that the mission depends on building a new political infrastructure, a project facing its most decisive test in the next three days as deeply divided Iraqis struggle to draft a constitution by a Monday deadline.
In the face of all that, Bush is trying to buy time. After meeting with his national security team at his ranch near Crawford, Tex., yesterday, Bush again beseeched the public to stick with his strategy despite continuing mayhem on the ground, exemplified most recently by the deaths of 16 Marines from the same Ohio-based unit in the past two weeks. Overall, nearly 1,850 U.S. troops have died.
"The mission in Iraq is tough because the enemy understands the stakes," Bush said, alongside Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "A free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will deliver a serious blow to their hateful ideology. . . . The recent violence in Iraq is a grim reminder of the brutal enemies we face in the war on terror."
Much of the public appears unconvinced. Just 38 percent of Americans in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week approved of Bush's handling of the war, the lowest point yet in that survey. More than half of those interviewed in a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll said they now believe that it was a mistake to send U.S. troops into Iraq and that the war has made the United States less safe from terrorism; 56 percent supported withdrawing some or all troops now.
That disenchantment is one reason, some officials privately acknowledge, that the military has begun talking about a potential timetable for partial withdrawal -- to provide a sense of progress and reassure Americans that the deployment is not endless.
"They want to start withdrawing because they can feel the heat here in the United States," said Larry Diamond, a onetime U.S. adviser in Iraq who has since written "Squandered Victory," a scathing appraisal of the postwar occupation. "They know the tolerance for American casualties and this ongoing bloodshed is not going to go on forever."
Pentagon plans call for increasing the 17-brigade U.S. troop presence this fall by a brigade or two, or about 10,000 troops, before bringing it down to about 15 brigades next spring and possibly to about 12 brigades by the end of 2006, according to officers familiar with the planning. The near-term increase would cover the constitutional referendum scheduled for Oct. 15 and national elections set for Dec. 15, a period in which U.S. military authorities expect violence to intensify, much as it did during the run-up to January's interim elections.
Top Pentagon officials have made no secret in recent weeks of their eagerness to begin withdrawing some troops to ease the strain of lengthy deployments. At the same time, military commanders have cautioned against expecting that Iraq's new army and police forces will develop quickly enough to operate on their own within another year or two.
"It's a race against time because by the end of this coming summer we can no longer sustain the presence we have now," said retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who visited Iraq most recently in June and briefed Cheney, Rice and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This thing, the wheels are coming off it."
McCaffrey said Bush's strategy of building Iraqi political and security institutions makes sense, and he estimated an 80 percent chance of success. Even so, he said the fading public support represents a genuine hazard for the president: "We want to get out of this. . . . The American people are walking away from this war."
At his meeting with his war cabinet yesterday, Bush reviewed the latest developments but reported no new direction. The administration has set up seven interagency groups focused on its main priorities in Iraq.
These are providing security and training Iraqi forces, building national political institutions, restoring energy and other services, tackling economic problems, establishing rule of law, enlisting international help, and improving strategic communications.
In not-for-attribution comments, some administration officials acknowledge the uphill task. One option that will have to be considered eventually, they say, is amnesty that would forgive even insurgents who have participated in violence. Historically, they note, insurgencies end with some form of amnesty.
But they also see hope in recent developments, mainly the decision by leaders of Iraq's minority Sunnis to participate in the political process instead of continuing to resist the new ruling order. If Iraqis succeed in drafting a constitution by Monday's deadline, the White House hopes it will defuse sectarian grievances that have powered the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
"We're entering a critical phase in the political process in Iraq," Bush counselor Dan Bartlett said. "While there's rightly a lot of focus on the violence and the security, the commanders and Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad are very focused on the political process because the political process will be key to defeating the insurgency."
That remains a daunting prospect given deep-seated differences along ethnic and religious lines, and the administration has signaled that it is willing to take a deal on a constitution without resolving some tough issues involving regional autonomy and resource allocation in hopes of sustaining a sense of momentum.
"The administration understands how delicate this is," said Peter Khalil, who was an adviser to the original U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq. "They're obviously pushing the process forward and want the deadline met. But it's a dangerous game here. You don't want them to delay, but you want the process to work."
Failure to meet the deadline, analysts say, would be a devastating setback to Bush and could accelerate the sense at home that the process is not going well. Alarmed by falling domestic support for the war, Bush aides resolved in June to rally the public by having the president take a more visible role explaining his strategy and predicting victory. Bush flew to Fort Bragg, N.C., to deliver a prime-time address pleading for patience, part of what aides said would be a sustained campaign.
But Bush then largely dropped the subject until yesterday's meeting at the ranch, addressing the war mainly in reaction to the latest grisly events on the ground. In the ensuing vacuum, Rumsfeld and the U.S. effort in Iraq have come under increasing fire even from Bush supporters, such as Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol and the American Spectator magazine.
"The Bush administration has lost control of its public affairs management of this issue," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University scholar whose analyses of wartime public opinion have been studied in the White House. "They were so focused on this through 2004. . . . I don't know why they've slipped."
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.