WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats urged the White House on Sunday to step up the pressure on Iraq's prime minister to crush the militias that are inciting sectarian violence and undermining a fragile democracy.
Senators from both parties expressed wavering confidence in Nouri al-Maliki's ability to come to grips with the rising bloodshed. They said he was the "best horse" for now to support. But they agreed that if no political solution can be found between warring Shiite and Sunni sects, peace will never be achieved.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the leading Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Bush administration must pressure the Iraqis to make political compromises on power and oil resources.
"If they don't want to do that, if they're going to have a civil war, we have to tell them, `You're going to do that without us,"' said Levin, who wants to see U.S. troops begin to leave Iraq by the end of the year.
Sen. John Warner, the committee chairman, said setting a withdrawal timetable would be disastrous because it could leave a security vacuum that terrorists would fill. But Warner, R-Va., has said a change in course may be necessary if the security situation does not improve soon.
"I think we have no other course but to give him our confidence and our support," Warner said.
Warner also expressed concern that even al-Maliki's recent talks with sectarian leaders had not lead to a cessation of hostilities. He said al-Maliki must give more authority to the Iraqi army. "It is their job, not the U.S. coalition forces' to subdue and get rid of these private militias," he said.
Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had little confidence in either al-Maliki's ability or willingness to force a political solution to deal with militias competing for control of territory.
"Without giving the Sunnis a piece of the oil action, without following up with what they've already done under their constitution ... I don't know how he can do much of anything. I don't even think his inclination is to do much of anything," said Biden, D-Del.
The committee chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said pressuring al-Maliki may not work because he does not have much clout. "We keep saying, `Go to your Shiites and get them straightened out, or the Sunnis, or divide the oil. And al-Maliki is saying, `There isn't any group here that wants to talk about those things,"' Lugar said.
Still Lugar said of the Iraqi prime minister, "I think he's probably the best horse to ride on in the situation."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the president should take a harder line in dealing with Iraqi leaders: "I think you have to be more blunt. I think you have to say, no young American is going to die and give their life or limb for Iraqi politicians who refuse to compromise. They have to want democracy for themselves as much as we want it for them."
The White House took issue with a report in Sunday's New York Times that said the head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq were working on a plan that probably would — for the first time — outline milestones for disarming sectarian militias and meeting other political and economic goals.
The blueprint, to be presented to al-Maliki by the end of this year, would not threaten Iraq with a withdrawal of U.S. troops, according to the report.
The White House said the article was not accurate. Benchmarks have been part of the U.S. policy in Iraq for months, said Dan Bartlett, a top aide to Bush.
"Implicit in that is that if they are not achieving the benchmarks, we are going to have to make changes accordingly," Bartlett said, adding that troop withdrawals or other dramatic changes in U.S. policy are not being contemplated.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday that U.S. officials were working with the Iraqi government to develop projections as to when they think they can pass off various pieces of responsibility for both security and governing.
Lugar, Warner, Biden and Levin appeared on "FOX News Sunday." Kerry was on ABC's "This Week."