President Bush says U.S. forces need to stay in Iraq to make the country secure and to help get its political system and economy on track -- and he has focused recently on progress in the country's reconstruction. He refuses to set a timetable for removing American troops, though he has promised a gradual withdrawal after Iraq's elections Thursday.
But as the insurgents continue to show strength and as Iraqis' ethnic and religious differences threaten a stable government, some in Congress call for a different strategy -- or even an immediate pullout.
A recent Army War College report summarized the dilemma of the U.S. military position in Iraq as: "We can't stay, we can't leave, and we can't fail."
When people were asked in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll what the United States should do in Iraq, 32 percent said it should decrease troop levels, and 28 percent said it should completely withdraw the troops. Twenty-four percent of those polled Dec. 2-6 said troop levels should stay the same; 11 percent backed an increase.
"The public hasn't really coalesced around the view that it is time to get out now," Steven Kull of the Program on International Policy Attitudes said in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report. "[But] the clear majority is looking for a way out."
So what are the options?
Stay the course
OFFERS BEST CHANCES OR STOKES INSURGENCY?
* This plan, which is Bush's approach, is to keep a beefed-up U.S. force of about 150,000 in Iraq until after the elections Thursday. Then, if relative calm prevails, about 20,000 GIs would come home in the spring. By the end of 2006, the force would be whittled to about 100,000, with some deployed in neighboring Kuwait.
Meanwhile, the training of Iraqi troops and police would be ramped up, and more sections of the country would be transferred to sole Iraqi control. No deadline will be set, but once Iraq is capable of defending its security, the United States will leave. "We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory," Bush said.
* Critics say that the Iraqi forces remain largely Shiite Muslim or Kurdish, with few Sunni Muslims and too many infiltrators from religious militias -- and from the insurgency. They also argue that the large U.S. presence is actually stoking the flames of the insurgency and accomplishing little more than providing an array of targets for an enemy that is getting better at building bombs. Opponents say fears of a civil war already have come true because Sunni and Shiite Iraqis have begun a low-intensity war against each other.
Set a timetable
REDUCES U.S. TARGETS OR AIDS INSURGENTS?
* The slow reduction of U.S. forces over the next year or two would allow time to train the Iraqi military to defend its country and to help the elected government get up and running, supporters say, while reducing U.S. targets there.
It also would send an important message: The United States has no interest in remaining in Iraq over the long term. It would signal to the American people that there is an end in sight to the war.
During a recent meeting of Iraq's political factions, about 100 Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders signed off on a plan that demands a withdrawal of foreign troops on a specified timetable without setting a date. Sunnis long have demanded a pullout, and this was seen as a public reaching-out by Shiites, who now dominate Iraq's government.
* Bush and other opponents say gradual withdrawal has the same drawbacks as an immediate pullout and would give insurgents a timetable for planning.
Such an approach also was tried in Vietnam, where it was called "Vietnamization." It failed because the South Vietnamese government had limited public support, was riddled with corruption and fielded an army that was no match for communist North Vietnam's. Congress cut off U.S. aid to South Vietnam in 1974, which some blame for contributing to South Vietnam's fall in 1975.
BOLSTERS MILITARY OR RUINS CAREERS?
* Supporters say that from the start, the United States has waged the war with too few soldiers. What has been needed is an infusion of sufficient numbers of U.S. forces to not only rout insurgents from their lairs but also to hold territory to prevent them from re-infiltrating once the GIs move on to clear another area.
This proposal aims to stamp out the insurgency. A plan by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, would begin by clearing specific areas of insurgents, using heavy force if necessary, then holding those areas rather than withdrawing. Heavy security, McCain said, would allow reconstruction to proceed without fear of attack and allow civil society to flourish.
* Opponents say McCain's idea has little traction with lawmakers heading into next year's midterm elections and little enthusiasm from a military already stretched thin and struggling to meet recruitment quotas.
Given the misgivings many Americans have about the war, boosting troop levels now is not likely to fly politically in Congress or elsewhere. Plus, Pentagon leaders worry that putting more soldiers on the ground could actually hurt morale by taking more active-duty and especially part-time troops away from their families.
FORCES IRAQIS TO ACT OR SACRIFICES PROGRESS?
* Supporters of this approach say it is the best way to stop the deaths of U.S. troops, will force Iraqis to take control of their security and future, and will prove that the United States doesn't intend to make Iraq its permanent base in the Middle East and thus will lower the passions behind the insurgency and radical jihadists throughout the region.
Rep. John Murtha, a pro-military Democrat from Pennsylvania, caused a stir in Congress recently when he called for the prompt withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Under Murtha's plan, troops would begin leaving after Iraq's elections, with total withdrawal within six months.
* Opponents argue that a hasty departure would be like giving terrorist insurgents the keys to the country. It would undercut Iraq's fledgling government before it gets its footing and almost instantly trigger a civil war between Shiites, who make up the majority in Iraq, and Sunnis, who were the backbone of Saddam's regime. Ethnic Kurds, meanwhile, would fight for their own independent state.
A civil war could draw in neighboring Iran as an ally to the Shiites; Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others as allies to the Sunnis; and Turkey as an enemy to Kurds.