WASHINGTON — The Bush administration acknowledged Thursday that it had not won agreement from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for a plan to crack down on sectarian militias, but asserted that Maliki had said he would work on "benchmarks" for achieving new security measures.
"Can I say that ... the prime minister and his government have come down and said, 'Yes, we'll do this, we won't do that,' or 'Yes, we will do this, we won't do that, and we'll do it by this time?' No," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a contentious Pentagon news conference.
Rumsfeld told reporters that the benchmarks might not include deadlines or penalties for failing to meet the goals. "You're looking for some sort of guillotine to come falling down if some date isn't met," he said. "That is not what this is about."
His comments, and those of other U.S. officials, came after weeks of debate within the administration, fueled by pressure from Congress, over ways to prod Maliki toward action on political and security reforms.
Administration officials have been urging the Iraqi leader for months to negotiate a compact among his country's warring Sunni and Shiite sects.
But Maliki, whose selection as prime minister was backed by Shiite Muslim political factions that field two of the biggest militias, has moved slowly.
On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, appeared to turn up the pressure on Maliki by announcing that he had agreed to a "timeline" for political reforms.
Maliki responded the next day with what sounded like a rebuttal: "The Americans have the right to review their policies, but we do not believe in a timetable, and no one will impose one on us."
On Thursday, the Bush administration scrambled to explain that what looked like a disagreement wasn't.
When Maliki rejected a timetable, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, he was referring to a statement by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, that American forces could relinquish primary responsibility for security in Iraq within 12 to 18 months.
As for benchmarks, administration officials noted that Iraq's government had already agreed to a set of political goals, including efforts to reach agreement on the sharing of oil revenue and on amending the constitution -- although the government has not publicly committed itself to a deadline.
On security measures, officials acknowledged Thursday that those were still a work in progress.
"There is not a significant degree of disagreement at all," said David Satterfield, the State Department official in charge of policy on Iraq. "No one is imposing benchmarks or imposing timelines, and the prime minister acknowledges this."
Satterfield said the United States could not compel the Iraqis to accept goals.
"The only benchmarks that are going to be articulated are goals that the Iraqis agree they want," he said.
Some American foreign policy experts -- including the State Department's former No. 2 official, Richard L. Armitage -- have suggested that the administration announce it will begin withdrawing troops from Iraq if the Maliki government fails to enact reforms more quickly.
President Bush has rejected that idea.
Administration officials believe that political concessions to Sunnis and a crackdown on Shiite militias are the only way to halt the sectarian violence that has gripped Baghdad, killing thousands of civilians and eroding Iraqis' confidence in the central government.
Some Pentagon officials saw Maliki's statement denouncing timelines merely as domestic political theater.
"Maliki has to have a little public disagreement to show that he is not a puppet," a Defense official said.
Rumsfeld scolded reporters for asking questions about the apparent differences between U.S. and Iraqi views.
"You ought to just back off, take a look at it. Relax!" he said. "Understand that it's complicated, it's difficult, that honorable people are working on these things together."
Democrats criticized Rumsfeld's choice of words, charging that he was belittling the seriousness of the problems in Iraq.
"Today a secretary of Defense who should have been fired a long time ago lost even greater touch with reality," said Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.