With violence surging in Baghdad and midterm elections two weeks away, the Bush administration faces pressure as never before to change its approach in Iraq.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, said Monday that US strategy needs "radical change." The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, in a broadcast interview, added that the US needs to crack down on Iraqi private militias – and that a change in course may be necessary if things don't improve soon.
The White House insists the US needs to stay the course. But it also hints it might be flexible, at least on military tactics. And it is sounding increasingly exasperated with perceived inaction on the part of the current Iraqi government.
"They're asking, 'What are these guys doing well and not so well, and what do we need to get them to do?' " says William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. "It's entirely appropriate."
The heart of the problem is the bloodshed in Iraq's capital. Insurgent attacks are up more than 40 percent since midsummer, despite a concerted push by American military commanders to hold some of the city's worst neighborhoods.
Iraqi forces are a partner in this effort as the name "Together Forward II" implies. But the performance of some Iraqi units remains suspect. The police, for instance, appear to be riddled with infiltrators linked to Shiite death squads.
Meanwhile, more intense combat has resulted in a spike in US casualties. As of Sunday, the US military had suffered 78 combat deaths in Iraq this month, its highest fatality rate in almost two years.
Many Democrats long have called for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Some party leaders now insist that Iraq has developed into a full-blown civil war. Senator Biden said Sunday that the US public will not long tolerate American money and troops "being poured down a rathole."
With a bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III set to release recommendations for a new strategy in the coming months, and with a public referendum in the form of a midterm election two weeks away, the White House appears to have been at pains to show it is not deaf to the current clamor.
In an interview this weekend President Bush told ABC News that while he is patient he is not "patient forever." He added that neither is he "patient with dawdling," an apparent veiled reference to the reluctance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to crack down on Shiite militias.
The fledgling Iraqi government must take more responsibility for Iraq's security, administration officials added Monday.
White House officials discounted a New York Times report that the US was developing a plan that would set a specific timetable for Iraqi militias to disarm. "Are we issuing ultimatums? No," said presidential spokesman Tony Snow.
But Mr. Snow added that the US was working with the Iraqis to lay out specific goals for the weeks and months ahead. "We're working collaboratively with them to figure out how best to do it," he said.
Tension between the US and Iraqi governments may have been developing for weeks. Mr. Bush reportedly had to reassure Mr. Maliki in a phone call that the US was not pressing for his ouster. Barham Saleh, Iraqi deputy prime minister, said after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday that international forces must not abandon Iraq while the situation there remains volatile.
"We must not give in to panic," said Mr. Saleh.
Given the buzz saw that the insurgency has proven to be, it is perfectly natural that the US should now reexamine its strategy, says Mr. Martel of the Fletcher School.
The problem in Iraqi, says Martel, author of the upcoming book "Victory in War," is that the administration initially framed its goal in grand strategic terms.
Now that the democratic transformation of Iraq seems more difficult than anticipated, settling for a political or military victory such as what characterized the first Gulf War seems a comedown.
With the debate in the US, "what we're seeing is the classic response of a society where military strategy is not producing the effect we had hoped," says Martel.
That said, US choices now are not pretty, writes Anthony Cordesman, a strategic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a new analysis titled "US Options in Iraq: The Almost Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
Iraq is already in a serious civil war, according to Mr. Cordesman, and current efforts are simply buying time. He writes that the US must avoid unilateral action and instead should seek to negotiate a new game plan with the Iraqi government and surrounding powers, in such a setting as a conciliation conference of all Iraqi factions.