Congressional leaders displayed eroding patience in the Iraqi government on Sunday, adding pressure on President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to find a faster path to peace when they meet this week.
"It is not too late. The United States can still extricate itself honorably from an impending disaster in Iraq," Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a potential presidential contender in 2008, said in urging for a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"If the president fails to build a bipartisan foundation for an exit strategy, America will pay a high price for this blunder — one that we will have difficulty recovering from in the years ahead," Hagel wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post.
As the U.S. involvement in Iraq surpassed the length of America’s participation in World War II, lawmakers have dwindling confidence in the U.S.-supported Iraqi government. It was the deadliest week of sectarian fighting in Baghdad since the war began in March 2003.
"I think what we’ve got to do is go around the Maliki government in certain situations," said Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, another possible presidential candidate. "Let’s work with other groups, and let’s get regional buy-in into this."
The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan 10-member commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, is working on a set of strategies for Iraq. The New York Times reported Sunday that the commission’s draft report recommends aggressive regional diplomacy, including talks with Iran and Syria.
Anonymous officials who had seen the draft report told the Times it does not specify any timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, although the commissioners are expected to debate the feasibility of such timetables.
Bush, after a NATO summit in Europe, plans to meet with al-Maliki on Wednesday and Thursday in Jordan. That summit, coupled with Vice President Dick Cheney’s trip to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, is evidence of the administration’s stepped-up effort to bring stability to the region.
The host of the meeting, Jordan’s King Abdullah, said Sunday the problems in the Middle East go beyond the war in Iraq. He said much of the region soon could become engulfed in violence unless the central issues are addressed quickly.
The king said he was hopeful the leaders will find a way to reduce the level of violence.
"We hope there will be something dramatic. The challenges, obviously, in front of both of them are immense," he said.
Iraq’s leaders promised Sunday to track down those responsible for the recent attacks, and al-Maliki urged his national unity government of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to curb the violence by stopping their public disputes.
The Iraqi prime minister is under pressure from Shiite politicians loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who have threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if al-Maliki meets with Bush.
"This is all political posturing. It’s all red herring. It’s an anti-threat. This is a very stable government," responded Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie. He said he had no doubt the prime minister would meet with Bush in Jordan.
As for Bush, some of the toughest criticism is coming from within his own party.
"We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam," said Hagel, a combat veteran of that war. "Honorable intentions are not policies and plans."
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called Iraq the worst U.S. foreign policy decision since Vietnam. He said Democrats do not have a quick answer and any solution must be bipartisan.
"It is time to tell the Iraqis that unless they’re willing to disband the militias and the death squads, unless they’re willing to stand up and govern their country in a responsible fashion, America is not going to stay there indefinitely," Durbin said.
That theme — pressuring al-Maliki and his government — seemed to unify Republicans and Democrats.
"I think we’re going to have to be very aggressive and specific with him," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the incoming No. 2 GOP leader. "And if he doesn’t show real leadership, doesn’t try to bring the situation under control — if, in fact, he becomes a part of the problem — we’re going to have to make some tough decisions."
Yet Rep. Duncan Hunter, the outgoing chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the United States will win the conflict in the long run by supporting a free government in Iraq. Before any decisions are made on reducing U.S. troop levels, he said, more U.S.-trained Iraqi battalions should be moved into the heavy-fighting areas of Baghdad.
"Saddle those guys up," Hunter said. "Move them into the fight."
Durbin, Brownback and King Abdullah were on "This Week" on ABC. Lott appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and Hunter on "Meet the Press" on NBC. Al-Rubaie was on CNN’s "Late Edition."