President George Bush faced increasing isolation last night after his much-vaunted new strategy for Iraq met with overwhelming public and political opposition.
Mr Bush and his most senior staff embarked on a huge public relations exercise to sell the plan to send an extra 20,000 troops to Iraq, aware of formidable opposition in Congress which already promises an embarrassing vote next week rejecting the new strategy.
In contrast to the deference the president enjoyed in his first six years in office, he is confronting for the first time a combination of reinvigorated Democrats and rebellious Republicans. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said: "In choosing to escalate the civil war, the president virtually stands alone."
Mr Reid said he had the votes of about 10 dissident Republican senators, and predicted that the passage of a resolution, with bipartisan support, would mark "the beginning of the end of the war".
The wave of scepticism and outright hostility that greeted the president's new strategy to pacify Baghdad and other parts of Iraq with a beefed-up US force marks a significant change in America's attitude to Iraq. A Washington Post-ABC poll carried out after Mr Bush's televised address on Wednesday showed that 61% opposed the plan, while just 36% backed it. In another poll by Associated Press and Ipsos, 70% of Americans said they were against sending more troops.
Tony Blair yesterday welcomed the decision to send more troops to Iraq, saying it "makes sense", but reaction otherwise was overwhelmingly negative.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, is to fly to the Middle East today to try to win support for the plan from allied Arab governments, though the immediate reaction in the region reflected the widespread scepticism in America.
There was concern in many Middle East capitals at the apparent threat of escalating the conflict to include Iran and Syria. Mr Bush, in his speech, warned that the US would "seek out and destroy networks" of insurgents moving into Iraq or based in these neighbouring countries. While US commanders insisted yesterday that this did not signal an intention to go into Iran or Syria, Ms Rice confirmed that all options were open.
The Bush administration was at pains to stress the initiative had come from the Iraqi government, led by Nouri al-Maliki. But Ms Rice, in an unguarded moment, picked up on an open television microphone yesterday morning, expressed concern that her forthcoming visit to Iraq might be perceived as dictation of policy from Washington. "I don't want to descend on the Maliki government and look like we, you know, just sort of beat their brains out," she said.
In a taste of the new confrontational approach on Capitol Hill, Ms Rice received a grilling when she appeared before the Senate foreign affairs committee to explain the plan. The Democratic senator and 2008 presidential hopeful Joe Biden told her Mr Bush's plan was "a tragic mistake". Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican congressmen were lining up in TV studios to denounce the deployment of an extra 21,500 US troops to Iraq.
Mr Bush flew to army headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia, after an emotional White House ceremony at which he handed over a posthumous medal to the parents of a marine who threw his body on a grenade. In a speech the president, who ignored recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group for a phased withdrawal, insisted that the plan would work. In a shift of strategy, the US is planning to go into previous no-go zones in Baghdad, in particular the Shia militia stronghold of Sadr City.
Mr Bush said the influx of more American troops, together with Iraqi forces, would be enough to "clear, build and hold" militant areas. He warned that the new strategy "is not going to yield immediate results. It's going to take a while."
The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, stressed that the new deployment may not, as had been widely believed, be short term. "It's viewed as a temporary surge, but I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be," Mr Gates said.
He also announced that to help with the strain imposed by Iraq on the US in meeting its worldwide commitments, the overall strength of the army would be increased by 92,000. He added that, whatever the differences over the decision to go to war in 2003, "there seems to be broad agreement that failure in Iraq would be a calamity for our nation of lasting historical consequence".
The vote on the new strategy will be the first collision between the White House and Congress since the Democrats secured control of both houses in November. Although the congressional vote is purely symbolic, the increasingly confident Democrats may move beyond that to try to block funding for extra troops. Such a tactic would have been virtually unthinkable even a week ago. Republicans loyal to Mr Bush may try to block the vote by embarking on a filibuster.
Among the Republicans who may join the Democrats in support of the resolution is Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam war veteran, who called the plan "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam". He said: "This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at great cost. It is wrong to place American troops in the middle of Iraq's civil war."
Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois who is among the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination and a long-term opponent of the war, caught the mood of the Democrats when he said: "We are not going to babysit a civil war."
Hillary Clinton, the other Democrat frontrunner, who has been careful so far not to be too critical of the war, said Mr Bush "will continue to take us down the wrong road - only faster".
Democrats, who control the Senate with 51 of 100 seats, would need 60 votes to clear a possible Republican procedural roadblock.
Qualified support for Mr Bush came from Senator John McCain, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, who has long lobbied for extra troops. "I do not guarantee victory or success with this new strategy," Mr McCain said. "If we do fail there's going to be chaos in the region and I believe that we would pay an even heavier price in American blood and treasure."
The British government said President Bush's announcement would not affect its own plans to hand over authority in southern Iraq to Iraqi forces and pull out British troops this year, but Mr Blair claimed the divergent plans did not represent a US-UK rift over policy. "It is really important that we don't either give that impression or have that misunderstanding," the prime minister told West Country TV in Plymouth.
The defence secretary, Des Browne, acknowledged that a crackdown by American troops on Shia militias in Baghdad could have a knock-on effect in the south, triggering Shia reprisals, but he said there were plans to deal with such an upsurge.
He expected Basra to be transferred to full Iraqi control this year, enabling British troops to start pulling out.
"It is my expectation that we will be able to see that process through and that over the course of the coming months and this year that we are now expecting to see a reduction of troops by a matter of thousands," he said.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007