With the election just about a year off and public support for American involvement in Iraq waning, the Bush administration has begun searching for an exit strategy that will not further destabilize that beleaguered country.
The administration continues to rule out sending US reinforcements. Instead it's studying a phased withdrawal of troops, to be replaced by a newly reconstituted Iraqi Army - an idea vaguely reminiscent of the Nixon plan to "Vietnamize" the war in Vietnam.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been talking about Iraqizing the antiinsurgency war by replacing US troops on a phased schedule. Having disbanded the 500,000-man Army - which some Pentagon officials now call a mistake - US authorities intend to call back enough Iraqis for 27 battalions. There are 100,000 Iraqis in uniform under accelerated training and clearance. Mr. Rumsfeld hopes to have 200,000 by next year.
The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes a Pentagon official saying, "We should turn this over to someone else and get out as fast as possible." At the moment, this is mainly military talk. But political advisers must be considering how it will look as the campaign heats up if US troops are bogged down and suffering casualties.
It's hard to know whether plans to replace US troops with Iraqi troops will work, in light of increasingly sophisticated insurgent attacks, such as the downing of a US helicopter with a shoulder-mounted weapon.
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, warned the Bush administration against creating the impression that "our ultimate goal in Iraq is leaving as soon as possible, not meeting our strategic objective of building a free and democratic country in the heart of the Arab world."
Opinion polls already indicate a mounting problem for the administration. An ABC News-Washington Post poll taken before the downing of the helicopter indicated only 47 percent of Americans approving the president's handling of Iraq and 87 percent fearfulthat the US will get bogged down there. In a later poll, 61 percent expressed belief that Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, but only 14 percent believe it is "the most important part."
The rhetoric from the White House is still "stay the course." A White House spokesman commented after the helicopter attack, "They want us to run, but our will and our resolve are unshakable." But unshakable may not preclude a carefully phased pullout of GIs and letting the Iraqis fight their own battles.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.