America should start the search for a way out of Iraq

13 November 2003

The urgent recall to Washington of Paul Bremer, the American head of the euphemistically named Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, is welcome for one reason only. It suggests that the United States is at last reviewing its whole approach to the conquest it embarked upon with such unrealistic expectations in March.

The need for a comprehensive reassessment of the deteriorating situation is beyond doubt. The promised improvement in the security situation has not materialised; if anything, the Iraqi resistance - for that is what it is - is spreading and becoming more deadly. Scarcely a day goes by without the loss of at least one American soldier and many more Iraqis. Yesterday, the Italian police became the latest contingent of foreigners to be targeted. It should now be clear that anyone who appears to reinforce the US and British occupation is vulnerable to attack, whatever flag flies over their base.

Whether anything more positive can be said about Mr Bremer's discussions in Washington depends very much on what changes, if any, the US administration introduces as a result. The first signs are not encouraging. The response of the US military commander in Iraq to the recent upsurge in attacks was to threaten harsher retaliation. Mr Bremer, for his part, sought to dispel speculation about policy changes and rebuffed questions about an accelerated timetable for elections when he reported on his White House talks yesterday.

Yet a fast track to elections and the broadening of Iraq's Governing Council under UN auspices may now offer the only chance of progress. Whether the UN would, or could, accept that responsibility at this late stage, having suffered the losses it has and without new US guarantees of safety, is a separate question.

Regrettably, the suspicion must be that Mr Bremer's summons to Washington was less about the future of Iraq than it was about the future of George Bush. With the prospects for peace and democracy in Iraq looking more remote than ever, the risk is a deliberate confusion in the White House between what is best for Iraq and what is best for Mr Bush's re-election - and a betrayal of the very ideals for which the US President, and our Prime Minister, have said they were fighting.