Simon Tisdall

Unless results come soon, the pressure on George Bush to "bring our boys home" will be irresistible.

INITIAL CLAIMS of success for the U.S.-led security "surge" in Baghdad, which officially began on February 14, were quickly tempered by two car bomb attacks that shook the city on February 18 killing at least 60 people.

But predictions by war-weary politicians and commentators in Washington that George W. Bush's latest attempt to get Iraq under control is certain to fail look premature at this point.

Brigadier-General Qasim Mousawi, speaking for Iraq's Shia-led government, said violent incidents had fallen by 80 per cent in the first three days of Operation Impose Order. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that it had also reduced the number of Iraqi families fleeing into exile. An estimated 50,000 Iraqis have been leaving the country each month.

The rumoured flight to Iran of Shia militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr plus several top commanders from his Mahdi Army has encouraged U.S. and Iraqi military leaders. Although Tehran denies giving sanctuary to al-Sadr, his followers have adopted a notably lower profile in an apparent attempt to avoid confrontations with coalition soldiers.

Trying to learn from past mistakes, U.S. forces say they are consciously pursuing a more empathetic approach to the civilian population in Baghdad. This follows the "Mosul model" named after the methods previously employed in northern Iraq by General David Petraeus, the new-appointed senior U.S. commander.

The U.S. surge may also be helped by stepped-up efforts by Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, backed by likeminded Gulf states, to use its influence and wealth to strengthen non-violent Sunni political parties and leaders. Faced by the prospect of a U.S. failure in Iraq, and a consequent reinforcement of Iran's regional position, Riyadh has dropped its previous stand-offish attitude to the American intervention and is trying to help rescue something from the wreckage.

The surge was "off to a good start," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a weekend visit to Baghdad. "There are going to be bad days for the Baghdad security plan when violence is up, not down. The real test will be steering a steady course? How the Iraqis use the breathing space that the plan might provide is what's really important."

With that latter comment, Ms. Rice put her finger on one of the main obstacles to the plan's success. Despite President Bush's claims in his January 10 speech setting out the new strategy, U.S. troops so far seem to be doing most of the heavy lifting, with smaller numbers of Iraqi forces in support.

Iraqi military assertiveness will have to increase for the plan to have any chance of overall success. Essential, too, will be forceful Iraqi political initiatives to build on improved security. One such is the serially delayed parliamentary bill that is supposed to ensure that the country's oil assets and revenues are fairly controlled and distributed.

Mr. Bush's surge faces a range of other pitfalls in Iraq and in the U.S. itself. While violence may have dropped in Baghdad, it seems to be increasing elsewhere in the country, including in the British-controlled area around Basra in the south.

Meanwhile, shortages of the American civilian expert volunteers Mr. Bush called for last month, and of military kit, have become painfully apparent in recent weeks, fuelling misgivings in the U.S. Apparent, too, is the fierce opposition among the Democrats who now control Congress and not a few Republicans, who fear for their political longevity.

The House of Representatives voted to repudiate the surge at the weekend. The Senate only narrowly failed to follow suit. And the leading Republican presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain, was on the defensive in Iowa, trying to persuade dubious onlookers that he could continue to support Mr. Bush's war and still win the presidency.

While it is too early to write off the surge, it is plain that Mr. Bush and his Generals have only a limited period of time in which to make a decisive security breakthrough. Whether they really can succeed or not will be evident by June. If the U.S. is not clearly winning by then, Mr. Bush will be sunk not just a lame duck but a dead duck, facing irresistible pressure to bring the "boys" home.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006