As US President George W. Bush appealed on Sunday for patience with his Iraq policies, analysts agreed the coming months were crucial to his hopes of getting out of an increasingly unpopular war.
In a rare prime-time television speech to the nation, Bush went to extraordinary lengths to win backing for his efforts to quell an insurgency still raging 33 months after the invasion to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
In unusually personal terms, he took full responsibility for the operation despite faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. He acknowledged the war was controversial and had brought "suffering and loss."
Once chided for never admitting errors, Bush recognized "setbacks" in Iraq and promised to do better. He warned more sacrifice was ahead for Americans exasperated by a US death toll that has risen to 2,156.
But the president also threw down the gauntlet to critics, accusing them of "defeatism" and telling them there was no going back in a conflict that had become central to his war on global terrorism.
"Tonight, I ask all of you listening to carefully consider the stakes of this war, to realize how far we have come and the good we are doing and to have patience in this difficult, noble and necessary cause," Bush said.
Bush, whose popularity has plummeted as dissatisfaction with the war rose, hoped to capitalize on the momentum generated by last week's elections for the first permanent Iraqi parliament of the post-Saddam era.
The speech capped a month-long public-relations offensive by the White House that had already featured four speeches by Bush aimed at persuading Americans he was on the right track in Iraq.
But despite his claim that "we are winning the war" and his strongest hint yet of a drawdown in the 160,000-strong US force, opponents and analysts warned that events could spin out of control.
Senator Joseph Biden, a leading Democratic opponent of the war, said the elections were "necessary, not sufficient" and told CBS television "the next six months are going to tell the story."
His Senate colleague Lindsey Graham, from Bush's Republican Party, agreed that "major obstacles" remained before Iraq would be stable enough to allow the Americans to think about their exit strategy.
Iraq-watchers said a crucial factor would be the level of participation in the new government by Sunni Muslims, once the ruling elite under Saddam Hussein and now a disgruntled minority fueling the insurgency.
They said the new parliament had four months to make good on promises to the Sunnis to redo a Constitution rammed through in October by majority Shiites and the country's independence-minded Kurds.
Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the political process in Iraq would work only if the Iraqis create a ruling structure that incorporates all factions.
"If they fail, the coalition fails almost regardless of its military success, and that of the new Iraqi forces," he wrote last week. "Iraq will move towards division, paralysis, civil conflict and/or a new strongman."
A study released earlier this month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the insurgency was as strong as ever and the US operation would be at a "tipping point" for the next six to nine months.
"I think the outcome of this tipping period is probably going to dictate whether or not the US effort in Iraq succeeds or fails," said Jeffrey White, a former Pentagon analyst and one of the report's authors.
This would bring the Bush administration to the eve of crucial congressional elections which his fellow Republicans fear could weaken or even end their control of Congress.
The question remained whether Bush could stem the tide of voter unhappiness over the war in time. John Mueller, an expert in war and public opinion, suggested the president would have an uphill climb.
Writing in the review Foreign Affairs, Mueller said that casualty for casualty, US support for the Iraq war decline and had declined far more rapidly than for the Korean or Vietnam wars.
"And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline," Mueller wrote.