The war in Iraq is intensifying. More American combat troops are arriving. They are in more battles with insurgents. And from Washington there is a crescendo of briefings accusing the Iranians of flooding Iraq with money and weapons and even of arming Sunni insurgents. We shouldn't be surprised - this is what George Bush and his war planners intended. Even the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, in its report before Christmas, said it could support a short-term "surge" to try and regain control of Baghdad.
The bottom line is that the president, the study group and most Washington policy-makers want to get as many US combat troops as they can out of Iraq by the US presidential elections in 2008. But that doesn't mean pulling out.
Consider the study group's "solution", which is widely considered "realistic" and is common ground with the administration. If the official Iraqi army and police can somehow be miraculously turned into efficient, disciplined, and loyal fighting forces, then US troops can leave and Iraqis will be left to kill each other. That would nicely reduce both the estimated $8bn a month cost of the war, and US casualties.
In addition, the study group wants some 10,000 to 20,000 US troops, mostly officers, to stay, embedded in the Iraqi units down to company level. US forces would also "assist Iraqi-deployed brigades with intelligence, transportation, air support, and logistics support, as well as providing some key equipment", in other words, just about everything that makes up a modern army.
As if that weren't enough, the US should leave behind "rapid-reaction and special operations teams". These, presumably, could include covert operations such as assassinations and bombings, thwarting or encouraging coups and squaring up to the Iranians on the border. So much for Iraqi sovereignty.
But Washington's war planners have an enormous problem largely of their own making. The Iraqi army and police upon whom even cosmetic US withdrawal is supposed to depend are woefully under-trained, poorly equipped, riddled with corruption and heavily infiltrated by insurgents and militias.
In the heyday of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, now nearly four years ago, the Americans had big plans for the Saddam-free police and army. But as US troops pulverised Najaf and Falluja, most of the new Iraqi soldiers and policemen refused to fight, and many openly collaborated with their countrymen.
Soon after Bremer quit Iraq, in the summer of 2004, the US had a big rethink. Some $3bn intended to provide Iraqis with water, sanitation and electricity was grabbed to pay for the new Iraqi security forces, which became the biggest item of American "reconstruction" spending.
The approach proved as self-serving as other reconstruction projects. Hugely expensive no-bid contracts were awarded to US firms, which took massive profits and delivered next to nothing. Staff rioted over pay at DynCorp's big police training camp in Jordan.
Police and army barracks fared no better. Of the $7.3m spent building a police academy in Hillah, south of Baghdad, much went to corrupt US officials. In a report just published, the auditors found Dyncorp was paid $43.8m for another police camp in Baghdad that was never used, including $4.2m for a VIP compound with a swimming pool.
As for weaponry, Iraqi investigators discovered that during Iyad Allawi's interim government the Iraqi defence ministry spent some $1.3bn on fraudulent contracts, all undertaken while American advisers were working within the ministry.
The miserable fact is that today the Iraqi army still can't repair and overhaul by itself the useable weapons and vehicles it does have. Nor can it supply food, fuel and ammunition to its units, nor even move troops and patch them up when they're wounded. American commanders can't even say how many Iraqis they've trained in logistics. The Pentagon refuses to give Congress meaningful data about the combat-readiness of American-trained Iraqi forces.
As for the Iraqi police, the Americans are powerless within a Shia-controlled interior ministry rife with torture, death squads and thousands of ghost employees on the payroll. Millions of dollars-worth of new hardware have gone missing, including more than 13,000 Glock 9mm pistols, now probably in the hands of the militias.
The study group's solution to this legacy of gross incompetence and corruption is to transfer the paramilitary Iraqi national police and border guards (now within the interior ministry) to the defence ministry. This would neatly put them under the thumb of US military advisers, leaving the interior ministry with Iraq's detectives and cops on the beat. Fat chance. To many Shias this looks suspiciously like a crude attempt to disarm them.
The unpleasant truth is that George Bush, James Baker's study group and many who support them agree that Iraq is much too important to American interests to be trusted entirely to the Iraqis. They also agree that US troops are going to stay in Iraq to fight on their own and to run the Iraqi army. Which means the war will get worse. Which means there are going to be a lot more dead Iraqis even if - and it's a big if - there are fewer body bags carrying dead US soldiers by the next American elections.
Ed Harriman writes on Iraq for the London Review of Books and made the film Secrets of the Iraq War for ITV
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007