Donald Lambro

How the administration plans to respond to the report is unclear at this point, though Bush has begun sending signals that he is open to a change of strategy - as long as it keeps America's promise to defend Iraqi freedom and sovereignty that was paid for with American lives.

"We will continue to be flexible, and we'll make the changes necessary to succeed," he said last week on his way to the NATO summit meeting.

"But there's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."

But is this a war that can be won on the battlefield by American military forces? It is if we were talking about an opposition army seeking to gain or hold territory. But in Iraq, there is no battlefield in the traditional military sense and no single army. We are faced with unseen terrorists planting bombs in marketplaces, mosques and roads, and sectarian violence where Sunnis and Shiites seek revenge, only to retreat into the civilian populations of villages and towns to plot their next attacks.

Departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly said only the Iraqis themselves can win this war. That points to only one long-term solution to the impasse in which we find ourselves: a dramatic change in the mission from one of fighting door to door, village to village, to one in which we recruit and train a much larger Iraqis army than has heretofore been imagined -- turning it into an effective fighting force capable of defending its country and its government.

This does not mean a wholesale withdrawal anytime soon, but it would put the Maliki government on notice that the burden of the war will now fall increasingly on Iraqi shoulders. We will give the Iraqis what they need to succeed, but in the end they will be the ones fighting for their survival. We did it South Korea. We did it in Afghanistan to drive the Soviets out of that country. We did it in Nicaragua to defeat the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas.

Such a mission shift, phased in over the coming year, would result in the gradual redeployment of our soldiers, as more Iraqis soldiers are put into action, while remaining true to our solemn promise to stick by them for as long as it takes.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.