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.
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.