BAGHDAD - General George Casey, head of US forces in Iraq, has joined the long list of those to have warned that the next six months will be critical for the country ... over the past three-and-a-half years.

The tradition began in February 2003 when US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a now much mocked prediction, told soldiers based in Europe that the Iraq war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

Three years and eight months later, 2,700 American troops have been killed and 142,000 are still deployed in an increasingly violent Iraq, where officials are nevertheless still talking in terms of a six month turnaround.

"This is a decisive period for everyone and everyone knows it. The next six months will determine the future of Iraq," General Casey said on Thursday after a meeting with top coalition and Iraqi military commanders.

His warning was seriously meant, but might have carried more weight if it had not so obviously echoed a litany of similar predictions over the years.

In January 2004, nine months after the US-led invasion and at a time when the rebellion against occupying coalition forces was gaining in strength, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Iraqi city of Basra.

"The important thing is to realise we are about to enter into a very critical six months," Blair told reporters on his flight home.

"We have got to get on top of the security situation properly, and we have got to manage the transition. Both of those things are going to be difficult."

Things did indeed prove difficult.

By 2005, the struggle to win the fight in Iraq had begun to undermine the credibility of US President George W. Bush's war plan, prompting some of his own domestic supporters to seek quicker results.

"The next six months will be very critical," said Nebraska's Senator Chuck Hagel, a leading lawmaker from Bush's Republican Party, in August 2005.

"Not just the constitution writing, referendum, the election, but also within that six months' period we're going to see whether the Iraqis are really going to be capable of defending themselves," he said.

As might have been expected, Bush's opponents were also impatient.

In December 2005, Senator Joseph Biden, a leading Democratic opponent of the war, told CBS television "the next six months are going to tell the story".

After many delays and much violence, an Iraqi government was duly elected and homegrown security forces began to take the fight to insurgent and militia groups opposed to the US-backed regime.

Nevertheless, sectarian fighting between Shiites and Sunnis erupted, and the death toll from the violence continued to rise.

In June this year, the US ambassador the Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in an interview with Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine that "horrible mistakes" had been made during Iraqi reconstruction efforts and must be fixed.

"The next six months will be critical," he declared.

With such a plethora of advice coming its way, the White House dispatched a bipartisan panel of foreign policy experts to Baghdad to assess the situation.

The group -- headed by former secretary of state James Baker -- reported back in the middle of last month and, worringly, the window for success in rebuilding Iraq seems to have narrowed dramatically.

As a member of the Iraq Study Group, former congressman Lee Hamilton, warned: "The next three months are critical."

10/08/2006 13:26 GMT

Copyright © 2006