In Estonia on his way to meetings with Mideast leaders, President Bush would not utter the phrase "civil war" to describe the situation in Iraq, even though those are exactly the words critics and allies around the world are using to refer to the sectarian violence that has claimed hundreds of lives in just the past few days and plunged that country into chaos.
Bush, speaking with reporters en route to the NATO conference in Latvia, called the Iraq violence the work of al Qaeda, which he said is fueling the sectarian violence.
"The bombings that took place recently was a part of a pattern that has been going on for about nine months," Bush said. "I'm going to bring this subject up, of course, with [Iraqi] Prime Minister Maliki when I visit with him in Jordan on Thursday. My questions to him will be: 'What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?'"
Some analysts say that approach may not be enough, though.
"The problem I think we really face isn't simply a matter of a civil war, it's an increasingly serious civil war," former Pentagon official Anthony Cordesman said. "So to deny it is, I think, foolish, particularly when it's quite clear it can explode into a nationwide conflict that can destroy the present government and our strategy in the country."
But Bush, while asserting that the United States will help, said that the Iraqis will take the lead in trying to resolve the situation.
"There's all kinds of speculation about what may be or not happening," Bush said. "What you're seeing on TV... started last February. It was an attempt by people to foment sectarian violence, and no -- no question it's dangerous there, and violent. And the Maliki government is going to have to deal with that violence, and we want to help them do so. It's in our interest that we succeed."
Critics say that there are some serious challenges to success. Cordesman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic International Studies, traveled extensively to Iraq over the past four years to meet with U.S. military, civilian and Iraqi officials and has a grim outlook on the future of the Iraqi government.
"There's no way to give any really intelligence calculation, but I think the odds are less than 50-50 of it surviving for the next four to six months. They may be as bad as one in four," he said.
And, he said the United States is preparing for Iraq's government to fall.
"Beneath the rhetoric of planning and talk about options … people in the White House see this prospect as very, very real. They see it as something critical to try to prevent," Cordesman said.
Broadening Concerns in Battlefield Iraq
Baghdad is now a battlefield, no neighborhood is safe from the violence. The mortar attacks last week that killed 230 in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City opened what a top White House official called "a new phase" -- and what nearly everyone else now agrees is a civil war.
And the violence is not just in Baghdad.
In the western part of the country, the Sunni insurgency rages on and is gaining strength as U.S. troops have been shifted to the battle for Baghdad.
In the North, Kurds and Sunnis are building up militias preparing for an all-out struggle for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
And in the south, where British forces operate, radical Shiite militias are in control.
"The British have effectively been defeated in Basra and in the southeast. The city is a no-go zone," Cordesman said.
He said if Iraqis go after each other in an all-out civil war, the United States may not be able to stop the violence.
"It simply is not clear that we can. We already saw in Lebanon, with a much more passive posture, that the moment you're seen as taking sides or intervening at all, you're seen by one or all sides as an enemy," Cordesman said.
"The problem we have right now is having made so many mistakes in Iraq, having squandered so many opportunities, having gotten it wrong so many times, there aren't any good options left," said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute. "We're now stuck between choices that are terrible and those that are worse than terrible."
Still, Bush is on the road looking for help. After the NATO summit he will meet Iraq's prime minister in Jordan, because a meeting in Baghdad is simply out of the question.
But he may find a way out of Iraq with the help of James Baker, one of Washington's canniest veterans and the former secretary of state under Bush's father.
Baker is co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, along with former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. They're heading up a blue-ribbon panel that will lay out options for Iraq soon -- possibly as early as next week.
"I think Jim Baker is a master, not only as a negotiator but as a consensus-builder," said former President Reagan's chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, who worked closely with Baker.
"Jim Baker believes in consultation. He believes in the art of the possible. One of his great lines, always, is 'Uphill but doable,' and certainly this is very steeply uphill," Duberstein said. "But to Jim Baker, a group like this will put something on the table that is doable."
"The potential value of a group like Baker-Hamilton is, because they are bipartisan, because there are senior Democrats and Republicans and Iraq experts and experts on military affairs, they represent a wide range of viewpoints," Pollack said. "If they can come to consensus on a particular course of action, that could create a larger consensus within the country around Iraq policy … and that could make choosing among the awful, different alternatives that we have on Iraq, easier."
But in order for that to happen, the man who launched this war and stood under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" more than three years ago, must do something that does not come naturally to him -- change course.
"He knows this course can't be maintained, that he has to reach out. Whether it's the Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton report or one of the other reports that's in the works right now, and somehow forge a national consensus. That's the job of a president," Duberstein said.
"Leadership is not a matter of telling everybody that everything's all right or promising them easy answers," Cordesman said. "When you look at Lincoln or Washington, leaders that confronted real wars and real risks -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Truman -- in all of those cases, they led. They did not spin, they did not exaggerate, they did not promise."