The Telegraph, President George W Bush ordered his senior envoy in Iraq last night to speed up the handover of power to local politicians, following warnings from the CIA of impending disaster and a suicide bombing that killed 18 Italian paramilitary police.
A lorry, packed with explosives, was driven into an Italian military police compound in the southern city of Nasiriyah, destroying the building. Nine Iraqis were killed and about 80 injured.
The attack was the bloodiest against a coalition nation since the invasion eight months ago and underscored the need to stop the violence spreading.
Until now, attacks have been concentrated in Baghdad and the “Sunni triangle” to the north and west of the capital. But they have spread dramatically and yesterday a hitherto quiet Shia Muslim city was the target.
It was the deadliest attack suffered by the Italian military since the Second World War and plunged the country into shock and grief.
But Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, pledged that Italy would keep its 2,300-strong contingent in Iraq and appealed for politicians not to exploit the tragedy. Tony Blair said Britain would stay the course in Iraq.
“Of course it is difficult,” he told Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, during Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons.
“But the implication of some of your questioning is that because Iraq is difficult, we should somehow get out and withdraw.”
He added: “That is the worst thing we could possibly do. We have got to stick with this and see it through.”
The atmosphere of crisis in Washington was palpable.
Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, was rushed back from Baghdad to plot a new course for American officials who have been forced to use the word “war” for what had been described as mopping-up operations.
Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, had to abandon a planned trip.
The meeting was also attended by Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.
Mr Bremer emerged from the White House to say: “The stakes are very high for the war on terrorism and the stakes are very high for moving towards a sovereign Iraqi government. It is a tough situation.”
Mr Powell said: “We are looking at all sorts of ideas and we do want to accelerate the pace of reform. We want to accelerate our work with respect to putting a legal basis under the new Iraqi government.”
The change in strategy by Mr Bush was a recognition that Mr Bremer's 18-month step-by-step plan was failing.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who was also in Washington yesterday, said the allies might hand over power sooner than planned.
Accompanied by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British envoy in Baghdad, he was expected to back the push for a swifter transfer of authority.
The main proposal was to draw from Afghanistan's experience after the fall of the Taliban and to appoint an interim leader until a constitution can be written and elections held. This would effectively end the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which has a UN deadline of Dec 15 to draw up a timetable for elections and writing a constitution.
Many in the White House are frustrated with the IGC's infighting and alleged nepotism and argue that it is too slow and inefficient.
The urgency of yesterday's talks was further underlined by a bleak assessment in a leaked CIA report that said a growing number of Iraqis were confident America could be defeated and were joining the insurgents. The report suggested that American policy in Iraq had reached a turning point.
Warning that an escalation of the military campaign could fuel recruitment of the insurgents, it added that none of the post-war Iraqi institutions or politicians had shown any aptitude for governing, or holding an election. White House officials refused to be drawn on a new timetable and indicated that the IGC was still a key part of the strategy. They also insisted that Mr Bush had not lost confidence in Mr Bremer.
British officials believe Mr Bremer's seven-point plan is too slow and cumbersome. They want to demonstrate to the Iraqis that the occupation is quickly coming to an end, partly in the hope that this would reduce support for gunmen who stage daily attacks.
Before leaving for Washington, Mr Straw told BBC Radio 4's Today: “We want to hand over power to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible and it could well be that we hand over more quickly than planned.
“However, the occupying powers have clear responsibilities for security in Iraq and we have to meet those responsibilities.”