Iraq - what kind of light is at the end of the tunnel?
Baghdad - There is light at the end of the tunnel but nobody knows how best to describe it.
Coming back here after several months, negotiations between the US and Iraqi governments about the future status of coalition forces in this country are said to be almost complete.
Time is short: the United Nations mandate governing the presence of foreign troops here will expire at the end of this year - but more importantly, it is the Bush administration's ardent wish to conclude the new deal before November's presidential elections in the US. So much of American policy here has been dominated by the electoral cycle back home that this latest milestone is of enormous importance; for since democracies normally respect treaties signed by their predecessors, this is George Bush's chance to define the next administration's approach to Iraq.
So not only will the new treaty define the circumstances and timetable for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq - whatever Barack Obama is saying about it on the stump - but it also offers the Bush Administration its last, best, chance to tell the world "we won". But how do you actually say that?
Talking to senior officers here several months ago, the word was, "General Petraeus has banned any mention of the V word". Since then pretty much all of the security indicators have shown continued improvement: deaths of US forces are down (despite the occasional blip); Iraqi civilian deaths ditto; Muqtada al Sadr's shiite militia has extended its ceasefire indefinitely; roadside bombs using tell-tale Iranian-supplied explosive devices are down; Iraqi forces led the major crackdown on shiite militias in Basra; and Anbar province, once the heart of the sunni insurgency, has been handed to Iraqi government control.
Iraqi ministers now suggest that all US combat troops will be off the streets by 2011, Gen Petraeus himself that they could be off the streets of Baghdad within one year. The new treaty will enshrine these objectives but also set out the ways that US forces will continue to operate in Iraq, supporting the Iraqis with airpower and logistics as well as continuing with sensitive special operations.
This major change in Iraq - and it might be as little as a few weeks away - will require an appropriate political message. The White House and Iraqi government will be keen to come up with phrases more meaningful and punchy than talking about "encouraging security trends" or "conditions-based withdrawals". The US Administration, naturally, insists that the new treaty has been made possible because of dramatic security improvements brought about by its own surge and Gen Petraeus's new approach to winning over the Iraqi people.
But nobody has forgotten the president's infamous "mission accomplished" speech in May 2003 and anyway the language of "victory" is inappropriate to peace-building efforts with the former militants who have stopped fighting.
There are some, still, who believe the light at the end of the tunnel may be that proverbial oncoming train - in the form of shia militants waiting out the US, or the new sunni "Awakening" militias turning their guns on the shia-led government. The performance of that government, for example in spending the country's bulging pot of petro-dollars to create more jobs, is still woeful.
Most of those who watch the situation professionally however - be they spooks, hacks, or politicians - have become more optimistic than that. The government's offensive in Basra earlier this year has shown an Iraqi ability to face down even powerful militia groups, albeit with the type of US support envisaged under the new treaty. The question remains though as to how that optimism will be phrased in coming months, and whether the Bush Administration will be able to resist the temptation to crow about turning the situation around here, and to declare victory.