America - Andrew Stephen tries to make sense of Rumsfeld

Paul Bremer - currently trying to take charge in Baghdad - has a new mission: to hold the lid down o

Here is one of my famous predictions. If George Bush is re-elected president next November, he will reward Paul Bremer - currently trying to take charge in Baghdad - with an important post in Washington. For Bremer would have pulled off a near-impossible feat: he would have managed to hold the lid down on the boiling saucepan of Iraq long enough for Bush to be re-elected.

It's going to be a lot easier said than done, but the Bush administration and the Pentagon - still in denial over the carnage in Iraq - believe that it can fade from the nation's consciousness over the course of 2004. There may continue to be deaths, but so long as American lives are not being lost, who cares? That, in essence, is why American policy is morphing towards "Iraqification" next year - as predicted here a fortnight ago. Indeed, the new US policies have suddenly become positively frantic.

The four-year project Bremer had been spearheading has been scrapped in one blow. The new plans call for an Iraqi government to be in place before a constitution is drawn up, with the relationship between Islamic law and national law still undefined. Power will be in the hands of arbitrarily chosen Iraqi leaders before there are elections. The Shias, Sunnis and Kurds will be left to fight it out among themselves, with tens of thousands of poorly trained, if not completely untrained, Iraqi policemen and soldiers somewhere in the middle of it all. The current deployment of 131,000 US troops could be cut in half and - you can bet your bottom dollar on this - those left behind will be largely confined to their barracks, pretty much safe from the rocket attacks that are raising the military death count.

I met an American friend a few days ago who had just arrived back in Washington after a six-month stint in Baghdad. He said he was pleased in some ways to be back, but he seemed genuinely sorry not to be continuing his work there. He felt that what he had been doing in Iraq was worthwhile. But these new policies . . . he began to shake his head sadly. It would all move too quickly for steady progress on the ground to be maintained. Security concerns were growing more acute, he said. He had been living in a trailer in the grounds of the main palace formerly inhabited by Saddam Hussein, and the rockets were getting nearer and nearer. Soon, he predicted, the trailers and palace itself would be hit.

It was a very different viewpoint from the one the American public is being asked to swallow - so far successfully. On days when two or three American soldiers are being killed, the US military is launching Operation Iron Fists and Hammers and so forth - a clever move to fool the American public into believing that US forces are gaining the upper hand. Now television news bulletins lead with how many alleged insurgents have been killed, instead of the numbers of American dead.

"About time, too" is the collective reaction of America to the news that a "transitional assembly" will be in charge in Baghdad by 30 June next year (though with the US maintaining overall control). I've been flooded with joke e-mails from American friends painting the US as a long-suffering, ever-generous force for good in Iraq, the underlying theme being that America has been too good to Iraq already. Weapons of mass destruction? So long as Americans are not being killed now, that is yesterday's story.

So the Coalition Provisional Authority and the farce of the Iraqi Governing Council will be no more on 1 July 2004 - just as the as yet unknown Democratic presidential candidate moves into the electoral fray, and giving Boy George a whole two months to spend the $200m-plus he has already raised with bombardments of advertising on talk radio and television. The campaign proper, largely financed by the taxpayer, will begin at the start of September, thus providing enough time, the electoral strategists hope, for Bremer and his boys to render Iraq no longer the stuff of news headlines. If they are successful, Bush will win the election.

However, this is a very high-risk strategy, showing how damaging the drip, drip, drip of American deaths is to Bush's chances in next year's elections.

Yet the Pentagon remains firmly in denial of the havoc being wreaked in Iraq. The other day, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was asked about the attack on the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was staying and in which one US officer was killed. "Isn't that evidence that things are not as peaceful there as sometimes you would like to see them portrayed?" Rumsfeld was having nothing of that: "It seems to me that doesn't really follow," he replied. "The fact of the matter is, in any major city in the world, there are attacks of various types that take place."

Well, quite, Rummy old chap, members of occupying forces are being killed in hotels in London and Washington every day. Er, aren't they?