WASHINGTON — President Bush is hearing increasingly bleak warnings that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is heading for failure -- from Republican and Democratic members of Congress, current and former officials and even some military officers still on active duty.
But so far, at least, the White House says it hasn't heard anything that makes it want to change course.
Weeks of military and political setbacks have produced a striking change of mood in the capital about the prospects for success in Iraq, where U.S. and allied forces are struggling to establish security to allow a new Iraqi "caretaker government" to begin work June 30.
A series of Senate hearings last week showcased the growing fears of many foreign policy experts -- a mood some described as "panic."
"I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure," retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We are looking into the abyss. We cannot start soon enough to begin the turnaround."
"If the current situation persists, we will continue fighting one form of Iraqi insurgency after another -- with too little legitimacy, too little will and too few resources," warned Larry Diamond, a former advisor to the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad. "There is only one word for a situation in which you cannot win and you cannot withdraw: Quagmire."
Hoar and Diamond's assessments were grimmer than most. But the two men were far from alone.
Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which returned from Iraq in April, has given reporters an equally blunt view. "We are winning tactically, but have made a few tactical blunders ... [which] created strategic consequences in world opinion," Swannack said in an e-mail message. "We are losing public support regionally, internationally and within America -- thus, currently, we are losing strategically."
He added: "I believe Operation Iraqi Freedom is a just cause, America needs to stay the course and we must regain the moral high ground."
Another active-duty officer who recently returned from Iraq -- and spoke on condition he not be identified -- was crisper. "We could not have screwed up more if we had set out to do it deliberately," he said. "We gave ourselves all the disadvantages of occupation, but none of the advantages."
Even Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.-Ind.), the cautious chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the U.S. might be headed for a dead end unless the administration outlined a clearer strategy.
"A detailed plan is necessary to prove to our allies and to Iraqis that we have a strategy, and that we are committed to making it work," Lugar told administration officials at a hearing. "If we cannot provide this clarity, we risk the loss of support of the American people, loss of potential contributions from our allies and the disillusionment of Iraqis."
Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the private Council on Foreign Relations -- and a top Pentagon strategist during the Vietnam War -- said he had never seen confidence sink as quickly in Washington as it has in recent weeks.
"I've never heard the kind of dark defeatism I'm hearing now, both in and out of government, including the worst days of the Vietnam War," said Gelb, a Democrat. "Support for this war is plummeting. In Vietnam, that happened much more slowly, and only after much higher casualties."
Not everyone agrees. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House committee Friday that he thought Hoar and other critics were wrong.
"It's going to be tough, but no, I don't think we're on the brink of failure; I think we're on the brink of success here," Myers said. "I think that as the new transitional government stands up, that there will be traction there with the Iraqi people that will be very important to them. And I think we'll continue to move forward."
"Don't panic," counseled Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert formerly at the National Defense University. "It is worse than I had thought it was going to be, worse than most people thought it was going to be. But no one is considering just leaving -- because the [result] would be not just that Iraq would go down the drain, but that it would be a center of terrorism."
Still, Marr said that when she briefed mid-level State Department officials recently, the mood she encountered was: "Help! Help! We can fail here!"
To counter that spreading sense of disorder and shore up public support, Bush plans to give six major speeches on Iraq in the six weeks remaining before the transfer of sovereignty to the transitional government, White House officials said. The first speech is scheduled Monday at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Officials said Bush planned to explain his strategy in Iraq in greater detail and warn that there would probably be more setbacks -- and more U.S. casualties -- ahead.