George W. Bush lost another key ally on Iraq this week when an influential Republican congressman from Connecticut distanced himself from the administration’s policy on Iraq.

The White House is having difficulty convincing the public that progress is being made in Iraq, but the president has rejected calls to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying that would be a “huge mistake”.

Public support for the war has crumbled as the number of US military casualties climbs – more than 2,900 in Iraq and Afghanistan – and daily images of violence in Iraq flash across US television screens.

Until recently, Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on national security, agreed with his commander-in-chief about not setting a timetable for withdrawal.

He said last month: “Neither Congress or the administration should set definitive timelines for withdrawal.”

But this week he changed his tune. Speaking to Fox News yesterday following his 14th trip to Iraq, he said: “I’m not seeing the political will on the part of the Iraqis . . . We need to incentivise the Iraqis. They need to know there is a limit to our presence there.”

Mr Shays still portrays himself as a strong supporter of the war. But by agreeing with many Democrats who want a timeline for pulling troops out, he has joined growing ranks of Republicans facing tough re-election races in November who are trying to distance themselves from the administration’s handling of the war without appearing weak on national security.

Mr Shays denied his U-turn was political. But his move comes on the heels of Connecticut Democrats who last month punished Senator Joe Lieberman for his strong support of the war by selecting Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, to replace him as the Democratic choice for the November ballot.

Since his loss, Mr Lieberman, now running as an independent, has called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, a tactic that Mr Shays adopted this week. Senator Hillary Clinton, the perceived frontrunner for the 2008 Democrat presidential nomination, recently berated Mr Rumsfeld at a congressional hearing on Iraq and called for his resignation for the first time.

John McCain, the Arizona senator who is considering running for president in 2008, also this week found himself caught between the administration and Republicans fighting for re-election when he accused the administration of “underestimating” the task in Iraq.

Mr McCain said comments made last year by Mr Rumsfeld (that the insurgents were a “few dead-enders”) and Vice-President Dick Cheney (that the insurgency was in its “last throes”) contributed to the sense of frustration of Americans about the war. But after White House officials suffered persistent questioning about his remarks, Mr McCain yesterday released a statement saying he fully supported Mr Bush.

“I have never intended my concern that the American public be fully informed about the conduct and consequences of the war to indicate any lessening of my support for our mission there,” he said. “On the contrary, I view a candid, informed public discussion of the war as critical to sustaining popular support for the war.”

General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, this week said the recently increased US force presence in Baghdad was having success in curbing the violence.

Last month, he told Congress that controlling the situation in Baghdad was the key to averting a possible civil war.

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