WASHINGTON Wearied by steady losses and few tangible signs of progress in the war in Iraq, the U.S. public is running out of one resource America's enemies appear to have in abundance -- patience.
Impatience with the war, now in its fifth year, was reflected in the elections that drove President George W. Bush's Republicans out of power in Congress in November. Since then, Bush named a new secretary of defense and new military commander in Iraq charged with implementing a new strategy.
But despite repeated appeals from Bush for patience while more troops arrive in Iraq to carry out the new strategy, opinion polls show that pessimism runs deep and most Americans favor a deadline for the withdrawal of troops.
"The ... question now is whether the U.S. has the patience to at least play out its current strategy and accept the fact that any hope of success must be measured in years of U.S. actions, not months," said Anthony Cordesman, an expert of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Under Bush's plan, a "surge" of 28,000 additional troops is being sent to provide security for Baghdad, using the methods laid down in a new blueprint for war against insurgents.
When the U.S. Army and Marine Corps began working on the counterinsurgency manual, the first in two decades, its initial draft said success required "extreme patience." The final version, issued in December, was less categorical: it prescribed "substantial" patience.
Judging from Islamic fundamentalist Web sites, there is no shortage of patience on the side of America's enemies. The insurgents appear confident they can draw on a seemingly endless supply of new recruits.
"Although ... we have killed some huge number of enemy combatants (perhaps 20,000+), without fail the armed insurgents, militia and Al Qaeda in Iraq apparently regenerate both leadership cadres and foot soldiers," retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey wrote in a memorandum to U.S. military leaders after a visit to Iraq in spring.
STAGGERING BATTLE LOSSES
"Their sophistication, numbers and lethality go up -- not down -- as they incur these staggering battle losses."
On May 1, Bush vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic-led Congress that would have tied $124 billion in military funds to timetables for the withdrawal of troops, an idea he sees as a recipe for defeat.
"All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq," he said.
The legislation he rejected won the support of only four Republicans but some experts said it was only a matter of time before others, under pressure from their constituents, would follow suit.
"Next year, even Republicans will run out of patience," predicted Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary who is now a security expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.
The way public opinion has turned since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 has historical precedents: support ran high for the first two years of the wars in Vietnam and Korea and then fell steadily in the perceived absence of fast progress.
Military history shows that past irregular wars in other parts of the world have taken between five and 15 years.
Gen. David Petraeus, who was in charge of rewriting the counterinsurgency manual and became the top military commander in Iraq in January, has shied away from estimates on how long the United States will stay in Iraq.
But he said in a television interview that "the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock."
Petraeus' own clock is set for September, when he will make an official assessment of the success of the "troop surge," the security operation that began in January.
There has been little change in the overall level of bloodshed since the new Bush strategy began. The U.S. military death toll was 3,352 at the start of May, with Iraqi civilian casualties estimated at between 63,000 and just under 69,000.
Military officers privately say they fear that now U.S. forces in Iraq are led by a commander, Petraeus, who combines deep knowledge of irregular warfare with political savvy, the Washington clock will not give them enough time to succeed.