As Baghdad reeled from a deadly new spate of bombings, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, insisted that the US was not losing the war in Iraq. But the top US regional commander said the insurgency was undiminished, and that ever more foreign fighters were entering the country.
In sombre and sometimes contentious exchanges with a key Congressional panel yesterday Rumsfeld rejected demands that the Bush administration set a timetable for the withdrawal of the 140,000 US troops now deployed in Iraq .
"Timing in war is never predictable, there are never any guarantees," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, arguing that a timetable would play into the hands of the resistance. "Those who say we are losing this war are wrong. We are not."
Rumsfeld was flanked at the witness table by the Pentagon's most senior uniformed officials, including General John Abizaid, head of Central Command in overall charge of operations in the Gulf. Their appearance came as the Bush administration's Iraq policy faces unprecedented difficulties, amid rising violence on the ground, growing US casualties and dwindling public support for the war .
A leaked CIA report has warned that the country is turning into an even more effective training ground for terrorists than Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Separately, Pentagon commanders are worried about the growing sophistication of the bombs and other devices used against US troops.
More than 1700 US soldiers have died in Iraq, and more than 10,000 have been wounded, while hardly a day passes without reports of problems in attracting new recruits to bolster an overstretched military.
The fiercest questioning came from Democrats, led by Edward Kennedy. "Isn't it time for you to resign?" asked the Massachusetts Senator, blaming Rumsfeld for a series of "gross errors and mistakes" that had drawn US forces into an "intractable quagmire".
The Defence Secretary and his colleagues vehemently rejected the dreaded 'Q-word', so redolent of the lost war in Vietnam. But "more foreign fighters are coming into Iraq than there were six months ago", General Abizaid conceded, implicitly contradicting Vice-President Dick Cheney's recent assertion that the insurgency was "in its last throes".
Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, seized on the discrepancy, claiming it as further proof the administration was refusing to face facts about what was happening.
"I don't know that I would make any comment about that, other than to say there's a lot of work to be done," was all General Abizaid could say.
"The security situation has got worse rather than better, and the President has to level with the American people," Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee warned. "More jihadists, more al Qaeda operatives, are crossing the Syrian border into Iraq."
The US could still win in Iraq, he added - "but only if the White House corrects course, rather than just promising to stay the course".
Biden, who has all but declared he will run for the Presidency in 2008, was speaking after a meeting with the visiting Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in the US to hold talks with President Bush. But several leading Republicans, too, have accused the administration of painting an over-rosy picture of events in Iraq .
Public disillusion over Iraq has driven Bush's approval ratings down to little over 40 per cent, the lowest of any second term president since Richard Nixon.