WASHINGTON – The U.S. military and political chiefs in Baghdad were the latest top government officials to hint that the United States may shift course in the unpopular Iraq war, but if any real changes are afoot in Bush administration policy in Iraq, they are hard to discern.

Significant policy or tactical shifts such as an influx of U.S. forces to try to stanch the bloodletting, or even the sacking of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, would only come after the Nov. 7 congressional elections, analysts said. That is because any dramatic moves would be seen as an admission that the previous policy was a failure.

So two weeks before a congressional election that is shaping up as a referendum on the war, the administration is repackaging rhetoric and ideas it has offered before.

For example, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, predicted on Tuesday that Iraqi forces should be able to take control of security in the country in 12 to 18 months with “some level” of American support. He used the same time frame in August, and even that was not the first time U.S. troop reductions had been seen as on the horizon.

When Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Iraq in April, Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffak Rubaie said: “We have a definite plan now” for an agreement between Iraq and the U.S. to move toward Iraqi control.

“Certainly at the end of this year, there should be a sizable gross reduction in the troops” and within the next couple of years “most of the coalition forces would go back home safely.”

On the political side, the Bush administration has been putting greater pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make decisions that could help ease sectarian fighting. But it was unclear how meaningful a plan announced on Tuesday would be.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, revealed a timeline that would require al-Maliki’s government to set dates by the end of the year for completing six key tasks such as passing a law to share Iraq’s oil wealth across the country and implementing a plan to combat death squads.

But there was no mention of what the consequences would be for Iraq’s failure to comply.

Khalilzad told reporters that Iraqi leaders had agreed to the timeline.

“Despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible, and can be achieved on a realistic timetable,” said Khalilzad during a rare joint news conference with Casey, the U.S. commander.

“I did not hear anything that suggests a fundamental shift in administration strategy in Iraq,” said Michele Flournoy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies who was a top Pentagon planner during the Clinton administration. “What I heard was two very capable leaders on the ground trying to make the best of the situation within very constrained lanes.”

Casey has adjusted to the upsurge in violence in Baghdad since midsummer by moving thousands of troops into the capital in a so far futile attempt to quell rampant killings and attacks. But there are few signs of a significant reduction in American forces in the country anytime soon, and in fact Casey said he may need even more U.S. troops in the near future.

The plan to draw down troops this fall was sacrificed to the tide of sectarian violence in and around Baghdad that threatens to boil over into all-out civil war. The daily tit-for-tat killings are rending Iraqi society, undermining support for its fledgling government and embittering ordinary Iraqis about the value of U.S. forces in their midst.

More than 2,800 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

There are now about 147,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, an increase of about 20,000 from early summer. These include about 3,000 military advisers who live and work with Iraqi army and police units.

Bush is under increasing pressure from lawmakers in both parties to change his war plan.

“We’re on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday in an Associated Press interview.

Bush has previously praised his generals and said that Rumsfeld’s job is safe.

White House officials from Bush on down talked about Iraq on Tuesday. They offered variations on the theme that flexibility is good, if not outright change.

“I’ve been saying to the American people that our goal in Iraq has not changed, which is a country that can sustain itself, defend itself, govern itself,” Bush said after touring a Sarasota, Fla., small business that makes devices to detect roadside bombs. “Our tactics are adjusting,” Bush said.

At the White House, presidential confidant Dan Bartlett told WTMJ in Milwaukee, Wis., that “we are going to adapt.” His words summed up the dilemma for the White House in an election season that has seen a growing list of worried Republicans questioning political or military strategy in Iraq.

Complicating the political straddle is the fear that suggesting major changes now could undermine the struggling Iraqi government, or that getting too specific about tactics or plans to turn around the violence would endanger U.S. forces by giving away too much information to the enemy.

Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said al-Maliki and his government are starting to do the right things, but he said the Iraqis must pick up the pace.

“I think they’ve got to do more and they’ve got to do it faster, and I think if you talked to Prime Minister al-Maliki he would say, to you, the same thing,” Hadley told National Public Radio.

Vice President Cheney pressed the theme of Iraqi responsibility in an interview with radio host Sean Hannity.

“Strategy has stayed the same pretty much all the way down the road. That is giving the Iraqis a position where they could deal with their own affairs,” Cheney said. “We change tactics from time to time; we move forces around different areas.”

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