A day after George Bush conceded for the first time that America may have reached the equivalent of a Tet offensive in Iraq, the Pentagon yesterday admitted defeat in its strategy of securing Baghdad.
The admission from President Bush that the US may have arrived at a turning point in this war - the Tet offensive led to a massive loss of confidence in the American presence in Vietnam - comes during one of the deadliest months for US forces since the invasion.
Yesterday the number of US troops killed since October 1 rose to 73, deepening the sense that America is trapped in an unwinnable situation and further damaging Republican chances in midterm elections that are less than three weeks away.
In Baghdad a surge in sectarian killings has forced the Pentagon to review its entire security plan for the capital, Major General William Caldwell, a US military spokesman, said yesterday.
"The violence is, indeed, disheartening," he told reporters. The US has poured 12,000 additional US and Iraqi troops into Baghdad since August only to see a 22% increase in attacks since the beginning of Ramadan.
"Operation Together Forward has made a difference in the focus areas but has not met our overall expectations in sustaining a reduction in the level of violence," Gen Caldwell said.
The bleak assessment arrives as official thinking appears to be shifting on the war, with reports that a study group led by a Bush family loyalist and former secretary of state, James Baker, could be drawing up an exit plan for US forces in Iraq.
Such a strategy would once have been unthinkable for Mr Bush, who famously vowed to keep US forces in Iraq even if he was supported only by his wife, Laura, and dog, Barney.
But the president now appears willing to acknowledge that the public is losing confidence in his administration's involvement in Iraq.
On Wednesday Mr Bush admitted for the first time the existence of a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam.
Such comparisons had been fiercely resisted by the White House, which has insisted that the US would succeed in bringing stability to Iraq and democracy to the Middle East.
But Mr Bush appeared to agree that the rise in sectarian killings in Iraq could prove as demoralising to his administration's mission in Iraq as the Tet offensive of 1968-69. Although that offensive resulted in a military defeat for the North Vietnamese forces, it turned American public opinion against the war and the then American president, Lyndon Johnson.
"There is certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we are heading towards an election," Mr Bush said during an interview with ABC television.
He said he understood the insurgents were trying to drive American forces out of Iraq. "My feeling is that they all along have been trying to inflict enough damage so that we leave," he said.
While Mr Bush now readily acknowledges the potentially demoralising effects of the violence, there was no sign yesterday that the White House had reached the same conclusion as critics who have called for an early withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
"The president was making a point that he's made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States," the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, told reporters yesterday.
He also rejected any comparison between Mr Bush and President Johnson.
"The important thing to remember is that the president is determined it's not going to happen with Iraq, because you have a president who is determined to win," he said.
"We do not think that there has been a flip-over point, but more importantly, from the standpoint of the government and the standpoint of this administration, we are going to continue pursuing victory aggressively."
The Tet offensive, launched in January 1968, is seen as the turning point of America's involvement in the war. The waves of attacks on Saigon and other southern cities was a disaster for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. But the images of violence - including a commando attack on the US embassy in Saigon - exposed the hollowness of the Pentagon's claims that America was in control of the situation. The offensive shook public confidence in the commander of US forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, and the then president Lyndon Johnson.
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