The clock is ticking fast for George W. Bush, who is embroiled in a make or break situation over his administration's ruinous Iraq policy.

Regardless of what the feckless American president or his spokesmen would say this week about his immediate plans for Iraq, he appears unwilling to succumb to the loud calls for an American withdrawal - "without any delay" - of American troops that invaded Iraq more than four years ago.

The criticism has been loud and clear. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright has described it in a television programme as "the greatest disaster in US foreign policy". In a lengthy editorial titled "The Road Home", The New York Times opined last Sunday:

"President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have used demagoguery and fear to quell Americans' demands for an end to this war. They say withdrawing will create bloodshed and chaos and encourage terrorists. Actually, all of that has already happened - the result of this unnecessary invasion and the incompetent management of this war."

But more agonising has been the human toll. Besides the loss of American lives, now over 3,500, some estimates have put Iraq civilian deaths at one million, a figure reminiscent of Algerian losses in their legendary war of independence from France.

More than two million Iraqis have taken refuge in neighbouring Syria and Jordan and an equal number have abandoned their homes seeking calmer areas in Iraq.

Equally distressing has been the report, which appeared in the Independent, a London newspaper, quoting Hana Ebrahim, founder of the Iraqi women group Women's Will, as saying there are about 50,000 Iraqi prostitutes in Syria.

There are many women among the Iraqi refugees in Syria "whose husbands or fathers have been killed" and because they are banned from working legally there, "they have few options outside the sex trade".

What has made the political climate here more embarrassing, if not threatening, for the Bush administration has been the defection of four leading Republican senators, including Richard Lugar, a former leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who have withdrawn their support of the unsuccessful strategy. Whether this is the tip of the iceberg remains to be seen.

Interim report

The administration is expected to come up with an interim report this week. Bush pleaded last Tuesday that all should await the report of his top commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, which is due on September 15. (He will be joined by the new US ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who will give a political assessment of the situation inside Iraq)

But if the Bush administration is expecting some comforting news, General Petraeus did not seem very encouraging in an interview he had with the British Broadcasting Corporation this week.

Fighting the insurgency in Iraq, as has been the case in Northern Ireland, he explained, is a "long term endeavour" which could take decades. What is more than the length of time it would take to stabilise Iraq is the number of US troops that would be required to remain in the country, he went on.

This is surprisingly what The New York Times touched upon in its lead editorial. The paper suggested that the US in order to help stabilise Iraq "could strike an agreement with the Kurds to create ... bases in northeastern Iraq or ... use its bases in countries like Kuwait and Qatar, and its large naval presence in the Arabian Gulf as staging points."

There is no doubt that a precipitous withdrawal may be equally disastrous to Iraq and probably the entire neighbourhood.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari has warned that a quick US pullout could lead to civil war and the collapse of the government, which, for the record, has failed to meet the benchmarks it agreed to attain during this period in the hope of subduing the insurgency.

But the presence of American bases in Iraq, once a withdrawal begins, should be the last thing on the mind of any American administration, Republican or Democrat, especially that anti-Americanism in the Arab world, Turkey and Iran has reached a high pitch.

What may be more appropriate for the US and Iraq to do is to try and convince Arab and Muslim countries to organise an international peacekeeping force to help in maintaining law and order in the war-torn country.

Although this may be rejected out of hand, especially by some Arab governments, the success of the ongoing mediation of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa in resolving the Lebanese-Syrian conflict, and the upcoming Arab League peace mission to Israel may be the best way to help in resolving these regional problems.

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at