U.S. draws timetable for Iraqi leaders

Bush is stepping up pressure for Baghdad to secure the country


WASHINGTON --The Bush administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to address sectarian divisions and assume a larger role in securing the country, senior U.S. officials said.

Details of the blueprint, which is to be presented to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before the end of the year and would be implemented over the next year and beyond, are still being devised. But the officials said that, for the first time, Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, such as disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.

Although the plan would not threaten al-Maliki with a withdrawal of U.S. troops, several officials said the Bush administration would consider changes in military strategy and other penalties if Iraq balked at adopting it or failed to meet critical benchmarks.

A senior Pentagon official involved in drafting the blueprint said that Iraqi officials are being consulted as the plan evolves and will be invited to sign off on the milestones before the end of the year. But he added, "If the Iraqis fail to come back to us on this, we would have to conduct a reassessment" of the U.S. strategy in Iraq.

The plan is being formulated by Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the top military and civilian officials in Iraq, and by Pentagon officials. Casey has been in consultations with the White House as the debate over the way forward in Iraq has intensified recently. And he took part by videoconference yesterday in a strategy meeting with President Bush and senior administration officials.

"We're trying to come up with ways to get the Iraqis to step up to the plate, to push them along, because the time is coming," a senior official said. "We can't be there forever."

Until now, the Bush administration has avoided using threats of deadlines for progress in Iraq, saying that conditions on the ground would determine how quickly Iraq took on greater responsibility for governing the country and how soon U.S. troops could withdraw. CBS News has reported that the Pentagon was studying these questions, but the broad scope of the steps under consideration and the multiple benchmarks that are being contemplated have not been disclosed.

The idea of devising specific steps that al-Maliki would have to take was described by senior officials who support the plan but would speak only on condition of anonymity. Their willingness to discuss a plan that has not been fully drafted appeared intended, at least in part, to signal renewed flexibility on the part of the Bush administration, and perhaps also to pre-empt the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a commission led by James A. Baker III and charged with formulating a new strategy in Iraq. It is expected to report later this year or early in 2007.

The plan also moves the administration closer to an idea advocated by many Democrats, who have called for setting a date for beginning phased withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq as a way to compel Iraq's government to resolve its internal divisions and take on more responsibility.

Frustration is growing among senior U.S. military officers and civilian officials in Iraq and at the Pentagon with al-Maliki for his failure to move decisively against Shiite militias and on a wide range of other fronts. Even the implied threat that the Bush administration would reassess its presence in Iraq might not be enough, senior officials said.

Tensions between Washington and Baghdad reached a new level Monday when al-Maliki, who took office in May, used a telephone call with Bush to seek assurances that the United States did not intend to oust him. The White House said after the call that Bush had given the Iraqi leader a pledge of full support.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld alluded to discussions about benchmarks at a Pentagon news conference Friday, noting that Khalilzad and Casey "are currently working with the Iraqi government to develop a set of projections as to when they think they can pass off various pieces of responsibility."

He emphasized the urgency of transferring more security and governing responsibilities to the Iraqi government. "It's their country," he said. "They're going to have to govern it, they're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."

But Rumsfeld was quick to play down expectations: "There's no doubt in my mind but that some of those projections we won't make; it will be later, or even earlier in some instances. And in some cases, once we meet the projection, we may have to go back and do it again."

Al-Maliki's government has already announced its own set of benchmarks, including the establishment of a mechanism to disarm sectarian militias. Last week, the government removed commanders of the special police commandos and the public order brigade, both widely criticized as being heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias, in the first broad move against the top leadership of Iraq's unruly special police forces.

But the surge in violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in recent weeks has prompted consideration of more far-reaching steps.

A U.S. official said that one plan under consideration was to give the Iraqi army the lead role in domestic security, downgrading the role of police units. The Bush administration has emphasized building up the police this year so they can take on the main role in providing security in many cities.

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