President George Bush invoked the specter of Vietnam for the first time yesterday as 15 more American soldiers died and increasing evidence emerged that the coalition of the willing that invaded Iraq four years ago has begun to fracture irreparably.
As the US death toll moved to 3,722, Iraq's Prime Minister engaged in an angry war of words with his critics in Washington. Meanwhile, a senior US general issued a dark warning that American troops may have to be sent to the south of the country to fill the vacuum left by a projected British withdrawal.
Amid the chaos, an isolated Mr Bush vowed he would "fight to win", that the so-called troop "surge" was working and that the lesson from Vietnam was that withdrawal had cost millions of lives.
Speaking to US Army veterans in Kansas, Mr Bush sought to soothe relations with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who had earlier threatened to "find friends elsewhere", after US officials suggested he be pushed aside.
However, in stark language that clearly riled British military leaders, the US general Jack Keane, who has just returned from Iraq, claimed that the security situation in the British-controlled zone had been allowed to deteriorate to "gangland warfare" with civilians at the mercy of rival Shia gunmen.
The general's comments highlighted the growing rift between the US and UK over Iraq with complaints among American officials over the "inaction" of British forces against militias in Basra. At the same time the UK is resisting American pressure to delay pulling troops out of Basra, the sole remaining area it controls in the country.
A senior Ministry of Defense official in London said "we are not going to get involved in 'tit-for-tat' with the Americans" but British commanders insist that the security situation in Basra is being misrepresented by some in the US forces. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said: "Our mission there was to get the place and the people to a state where the Iraqis could run the country if they chose to and we are very nearly there.
"Our mission was not to make the place look somewhere green and peaceful because that was never going to be achievable in that timescale and, in any case, only the Iraqis can fulfill that aspiration."
The American exasperation, however, is compounded by the perception that British troops are "disengaging" while the US is losing lives daily in the "surge". The crash of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in northern Iraq is thought to have been due to mechanical failure rather than hostile fire. Meanwhile, east of Baghdad another American soldier was killed in a roadside attack.
General Keane, who is recently retired but is considered to be influential within the Pentagon, said there was "frustration" among US commanders that they may have to send troops to the south while continuing to fight the insurgency in central and northern Iraq. He said: "That situation could arise if the situation gets worse in Basra if and when the British leave. Now the situation has changed in the south, it is considerably worse, certainly with the kind of gangland warfare that is preying on the people in the south."
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General Keane accused the British of being guilty of "general disengagement from the key issues around Basra". He continued: "The Brits have never had enough troops to truly protect the population." UK troop numbers are, in fact, due to be further reduced, by 500, to fewer than 5,000 at the end of the year.
Basra Palace, the last British base inside Basra City, was due to be handed over to Iraqi forces at the beginning of August. This has been delayed at the Americans' request, but UK officials insist this will take place, along with the passing of control of the city to the Iraqi government, by the end of the year. British troops will then withdraw to the air bridgehead at Basra airport, where a reserve force of about 3,000 will remain when the official withdrawal from Iraq takes place next year.
The dangers in southern Iraq were also illustrated by the assassinations of the governors of two provinces, and the police chief of one.
Mohammed Ali al-Hassani, the governor of Muthanna, was killed along with his driver and bodyguard by a roadside bomb as he left his home for his office in the provincial capital Samawah. It followed the killing of Khalil Jalil Hanza, the governor of Qadisiyah province, along with the police chief, Major General Khalid Hassan, in another roadside attack.
With no end in sight to the bloodletting, Mr Maliki reacted angrily yesterday to what he called the "discourteous" remarks from his US allies. "Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria," said Mr Maliki. "We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere."
The message was driven home to President Bush overnight. If he had been reticent in his support for Mr Maliki on Tuesday, he was positively effusive yesterday. "It's not up to the politicians in Washington DC to say whether he will remain in his position," he said. "It is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship."
On Tuesday President Bush said there was "a certain level of frustration" with the Iraqi government's failure to unify Sunni, Shia and Kurd factions a few hours after Ryan Crocker, America's ambassador to Baghdad, described political progress in the country as "extremely disappointing" and said US support for the Maliki government would run out and did not come with a "blank check".
But it was Mr Bush's comparison of the war in Iraq with Vietnam that raised most eyebrows yesterday. He specifically linked the US defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
"Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people', 're-education camps' and 'killing fields'." Commentators were quick to point out that the bloodletting of the Khmer Rouge was a consequence of the US secret war again Cambodia.
"And it was President Bush who got us into the [Iraq] quagmire in the first place," said David Gergen, a commentator and veteran of several administrations.
© 2007 The Independent