Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Is the White House being slowly but inexorably nudged toward a long-term withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in Iraq's war zones next year? It would seem so, though perhaps "withdrawal" is not exactly the word to describe the direction in which U.S. military deployment may be headed. A fundamental change in its mission might be a better way to put it, shifting more toward military training, a larger Iraqi arms buildup and U.S. backup when needed, and necessary logistical support -- a mission in keeping with President Bush's vow that Iraq's democratically elected government survives and the terrorists are engaged and ultimately defeated.

Clearly, public support for a dramatic change in war strategy has been building up to a critical mass that has put the administration in a weakened, defensive position about what to do next.

The voters have put the Democrats in charge of Congress in the hope of changing policy, largely because of their disapproval of the way the war is being conducted. If nothing is done to change course, American impatience with the war will only increase.

At the same time, Bush and his administration have clearly been losing confidence and patience in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's abilities to halt the rapidly deteriorating conditions in his country and his government. Bush's thinly veiled impatience was made clear last week about what he wanted to hear from the Iraqi leader: "My questions to him will be: What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with sectarian violence?"

The next shoe to drop will be the Iraq Study Group, the congressionally mandated, bipartisan commission ordered to come up with a viable plan in Iraq. The panel's report is going to call this week for a gradual, phased withdrawal or redeployment of at least some of our forces next year, though without setting a timetable.

If those reports prove true, they only add further fuel to the movement for changing strategies long term and reducing the ground combat forces that are clearly insufficient to stabilize a nation of 25 million people beset by a growing insurgency bent on wreaking chaos, terror and death.

More to the point, no one at this juncture in the administration has been able to come up with a viable way to thwart the guerrilla war aimed at the civilian population, and our own forces. The White House has made clear it is looking for answers and hopes some of them may be found in the commission's report due out Wednesday.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.