President George Bush has an exit plan for Iraq. Its blurry outline was revealed this week as the worst violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein exploded in the country.
Mr Bush flagged his strategy on Tuesday. It calls for rapidly increasing the "Iraqification" of the conflict. By Thursday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, were spelling out what this meant. The idea is to push many more Iraqi police and security officials into the front lines against the insurgency while at the same time declaring political victory on the ground.
After days of being confronted with mounting US casualties, the Administration tried to present Americans with a coherent plan to assure them Iraq will not be Mr Bush's Vietnam. One aim of that plan, it appears, is to start pulling US forces out of Iraq as early as March next year in time for Mr Bush's re-election campaign.
What the US is going to do, Mr Bush said, is "implement the strategy which is (to) encourage Iraqis to help deal with the security issues".
Responding to questions about the violent attacks on the International Red Cross and the Rashid Hotel that left more than 40 dead, Mr Bush said: "There are people willing to sacrifice for the future of their country - the Iraqi citizens."
Two days later at the Pentagon, Mr Rumsfeld produced figures showing a rise in the number of Iraqi security personnel - almost 90,000 - on the streets. But so far, his figures show, about 132,000 US troops, as well as British and other foreign forces, are still on the ground. Mr Rumsfeld insisted he would be pushing US commanders to get even more Iraqis to take on front line positions.
But, as Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Wolfowitz conceded, the new Iraqi security forces are now also reeling under the attacks launched by insurgents. About 85 of the Iraqi forces have been killed since June.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress reacted with alarm to the wave of violence this week. Attacks on US forces have mounted to more than 30 a day. The violence has led the Red Cross, the UN and other aid groups to announce further staff cutbacks in Iraq.
But in the face of the escalating conflict, Mr Bush, Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Wolfowitz all declared major progress was under way. Indeed, Mr Wolfowitz had gone to Iraq last week to give Mr Bush a progress report on the stabilization of the country and to speed up "Iraqification". He was brutally interrupted by the rocket attack on his hotel.
Despite this, Mr Wolfowitz came home with a positive report for the President. "There is plenty of good news in Iraq," he said.
In a passionate speech on his return, Mr Wolfowitz drove home one point. Whatever Iraq's future, it is already a huge improvement on the past; therefore the Administration can chalk up the war as a success.
"War is an ugly thing, I agree with that. But butchers like Saddam Hussein are incredibly ugly," said Mr Wolfowitz. "I don't think there's much question here about the morality of having gotten rid of that regime."
The Administration's critics among the Democrats are not convinced. Despite the success in removing Saddam, the fear now is that Iraq could descend into chaos, like Afghanistan, battered by a vicious insurgency.
But Mr Bush has little alternative except to put his faith in the Iraqification plan. If it works, he can begin to welcome home a respectable number of troops before next year's Republican convention.
If not, he can only hope that the good news on the US economy will distract most American voters from the casualties in Iraq.
Copyright © 2003. The Age Company Ltd