WASHINGTON — As Iraq's government compiles a record of failure, the Bush administration is under growing pressure to intervene to rearrange Baghdad's dysfunctional political order, or even install a new leadership.
Publicly, administration officials say they remain committed to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, even though after a year in office, his elected government has failed to complete any important steps toward political reconciliation -- the legislative "benchmarks" sought by U.S. officials.
But privately, some U.S. officials acknowledge that the congressional clamor to find another approach will increase sharply in coming months if no progress is made toward tamping down sectarian violence, bringing more minority Sunnis into the government and fairly dividing up the nation's oil resources.
Intervention "is the eternal temptation for the Americans," said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations. "As we get closer and closer to the fall, and the benchmarks are not met ... there will be a growing appeal to the idea that if we can replace the top guy, we can get back on track."
Although U.S. officials vow not to meddle in the government they helped to create, they have brought their influence to bear again and again, including in Maliki's selection as prime minister in early 2006. In January of this year, top U.S. officials considered, and narrowly rejected, a proposal to try to reorganize the fractious political order around a new moderate coalition.
Americans could spur change through a multitude of diplomatic channels and could use their influence with other Iraqi groups and leaders to shake up the political order in Baghdad. For instance, Washington could encourage a parliamentary no-confidence vote on Maliki, then quietly work a new coalition to choose a leader to its liking, analysts said.
Many Iraqis, as well as Arabs from neighboring states, are convinced that a U.S. move is only a matter of time, given the political paralysis in Baghdad. One sign of the rising expectations is that two Iraqi political groups are trying to position themselves to win American backing as a replacement government, U.S. officials said.
A party headed by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, with quiet backing from Saudis, Egyptians and Persian Gulf emirates, has been seeking allies among Iraqi groups and in Washington, U.S. officials said. Hoping to build support, Allawi's allies from neighboring countries tried to arrange for him to attend the meeting on Iraq in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik this month. The plan was abandoned when Maliki threatened to refuse to take part if his would-be successor was there as well.
Meanwhile, the party long known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite Muslim faction, has been changing its image to make itself appear more in the mainstream -- "more presentable," said the U.S. official. In one such sign, the group announced recently that it was dropping the word "revolution" from its name. It is now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
In the United States, congressional pressure on the White House is coming from both parties, and is growing. Although Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to criticize President Bush's troop buildup strategy, they have eagerly expressed their chagrin at Maliki's government.
"The Iraqi government needs to understand that they're running out of time to get their part of the job done," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader.
Other Iraqi leaders have long had admirers within the U.S. government. Allawi, a secular Shiite with strong ties to Sunnis, has had advocates in the CIA and the State Department. Allawi's transitional government, installed under strong U.S. pressure, was often accused of corruption, and lost popularity with both Shiite and Sunni Muslims because of his support of U.S.-led military action in Najaf and Fallouja.
When Allawi ran for parliament in 2005, some officials urged that the administration make a special effort to help his cause, an idea that was shot down by top officials. In the end, his slate received only 14% of the vote.
Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a French-trained economist and a top Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council official, continues to have supporters in Washington, including Meghan O'Sullivan, a senior National Security Council aide who recently resigned her post overseeing Iraq policy for the White House.
Since January, when the administration rejected the proposal to try to form a new governing coalition, many officials have taken a more cautious view. They fear that U.S. pressure could alienate Iraqis and undermine Bush administration claims to support democracy, while not delivering results.
Many outside analysts warn against intervening and question the value of new leadership during a period of crisis.