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Colin Powell, outgoing secretary of state, says he would like to see US troops leave Iraq "as quickly as possible" but that the strength of the insurgency does not allow the Bush administration to set a timeframe for a withdrawal this year.
Mr Powell's bleak assessment, less than three weeks before Iraqis are due to elect a parliament, reflects what advisers close to the administration and former officials describe as an understanding in the State Department and Pentagon of the depth of the crisis.
One counterinsurgency expert said Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, had a "brutally accurate" picture of the situation and the potential dangers.
But a member of an influential neoconservative policy group said that such warnings "stop well short of the president".
He said Mr Rumsfeld, criticised for the conduct of the war, had an interest in hiding the true picture from the president.
According to Chas Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the independent Middle East Policy Council, Mr Bush recently asked Mr Powell for his view on the progress of the war. "We're losing," Mr Powell was quoted as saying. Mr Freeman said Mr Bush then asked the secretary of state to leave.