What a difference an election makes. With US mid-term Congressional polls just 11 days away, US President George W. Bush is sending out all the right signals to voters on Iraq: no matter what the on-the-ground realities may be. On Tuesday, for example, his ambassador to Iraq and his top military commander in the nation gave an up-beat assessment at a 2pm Baghdad news conference. That happened to coincide with the highly popular 7am breakfast television shows on the American east coast. Their message went out loud and clear to Americans over their first cup of coffee: a US-Iraqi plan was in the works that might have foreign soldiers leaving in 12 to 18 months. This was as positive a message as could be presented in light of the dozens of American soldiers killed in the insurgency raging in at least five Iraqi provinces. Not for two years has there been such a high monthly toll. Nonetheless, for Americans increasingly critical of the Bush administration for its Iraq policy, even a hint that the 141,000 troops will be coming home sooner rather than later is a positive sign. Whether it can be translated into votes to shore up sagging support for Republicans may yet be dependent on what else Mr Bush can conjure up over the next 11 days. If his record over the past 11 or so is any indication, it is going to be good. The fundamentals of the US-led military engagement in Iraq have not changed. Now - as when troops first went in to oust president Saddam Hussein in March 2003 - the US maintains that it is going to stay the course, and there will be no early withdrawal. What has changed substantially, though, is the tone of the rhetoric. Gone is the bluster of certain victory - replaced by a cautious gaze into the not-too-distant future. James Baker, the secretary of state when Mr Bush's father was president, set the ball rolling two weeks ago with a progress report from his Iraq Study Group - a commission formed to assess the war and chart a new course. He has suggested that one way to stop sectarian fighting is through discussions with Iran and Syria - previously an unthinkable proposition for the Bush administration. Whether this happens is hypothetical for now. But it's a tantalising thought, given the war of words Mr Bush and his other senior officials have rained down on the two nations in recent years. How palatable such an idea would be to voters, were it to become part of Bush policy, will never be known: Mr Baker has judiciously said he will not release his report until after the elections. This is a gracious gesture from a man who must be among those closest to the Bush family. The closer the elections come, the more unexpected the comments from American officials. Those made on Tuesday by the top US military commander in Iraq, General George Casey, and US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, were certainly surprising. Mr Khalilzad unveiled a timetable for political steps that he contended the Iraqi government had agreed to take; General Casey said he believed that Iraq's troops would be ready to take over from their US counterparts in a year to 18 months. American troops would then be able to move to a support role, perhaps in smaller numbers. But new tone or not, the US is still up to its old games of not being entirely upfront. What would happen if the Iraqi government were not able to keep its end of the bargain? And what about those reports that - although the Pentagon claims Iraq has more than 277,000 troops and police - so few ever turn up for work each day that the number is nearer a third of that figure. This does not support the image of hope that has been so vividly painted. Most importantly, no one has said anything much about the future for Iraqis, who are dying violently at a rate of more than 100 a day. Lacking basics such as a regular electricity supply and running water, they will get little cheer from the changed American tone. As they struggle to survive, elections are the last thing on their minds. Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.