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For U.S. and Iraq, it's 'decision time'

By Kirk Semple and John F. Burns
The New York Times

On a surprise visit to Baghdad in June, President George W. Bush told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that he had come "to look you in the eye" and determine whether the United States had a reliable partner in its effort to pull Iraq out of its downward spiral into anarchy.

Senior American officials said then that Maliki had six months to show he had met Bush's benchmark. But with those months now gone in a miasma of worsening violence, and the two men preparing for another meeting in Amman on Wednesday, senior American officials who deal closely with the Iraqi leader say they have yet to be convinced that Maliki - or any other potential leader - has the will, or the political muscle, to pull Iraq back from the abyss.

For the Bush administration, the meeting in the Jordanian capital comes at a moment of bitter paradox.

The worsening war here has merged with growing American opposition to the conflict to lend new urgency to the search for ways to turn the situation around. "It's decision time, and everybody knows it," said one high-level American official, speaking anonymously so as to protect his relationship with the Iraqi leadership.

But just as this critical juncture has arrived, American officials say, the U.S. government's ability to influence events on the ground in Iraq and the war's outcome has critically diminished.

While 150,000 U.S. troops are a bulwark for now against a collapse of all the United States has sought to build here, they say, military options - short of a rapid withdrawal - are no longer decisive. Instead, they say, Iraq's fate now depends on its political leaders, and their ability to find common ground and purpose among feuding Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the struggle for political and economic power.

Maliki acknowledged as much Sunday in his frankest declaration yet that Iraq's political leaders are to blame for the surging violence. Previously, he blamed militant groups, mainly Sunnis, for the mayhem. But following a series of bombings that killed more than 200 Shiites in Baghdad's working-class district of Sadr City on Thursday, and revenge attacks in which dozens of Sunnis were killed, he shouldered the blame on behalf of Iraq's new political class.

"The crisis is political," he said, "and the ones who can stop the cycle of aggravation and bloodletting of innocent people are the politicians."

The 56-year-old Iraqi leader was speaking against a backdrop of disarray that is disastrous, even by the dismal standards he inherited when he and his "national unity" government were sworn into office in May. War-related deaths among Iraqi civilians - more than 3,700 last month, according to United Nations figures - have soared on the increasing momentum of revenge between Shiites and Sunnis.

The latest military plan to secure Baghdad, which American commanders described as the key to the war when they launched the plan in August, has faltered for lack of Iraqi troops, part of a deep-rooted weakness in Iraq's new American-trained security forces.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been driven from their homes, and many have fled the country altogether. Public services remain feeble, with millions of Iraqis going into the chill of a fourth desert winter with only a few hours of electricity a day.

Meanwhile, the political process has almost completely ground to a halt as political will has become more scarce than at any time since Iraq established sovereignty in 2004, Iraqi and American officials say. Soon after he took office, Maliki announced his "national reconciliation plan," intended to reduce violence through dialogue, and an amnesty program for militia fighters and insurgents, and made it a cornerstone of his leadership. But the plan has stalled.

Political leaders have also made little visible progress on obligations to review the Constitution and draft a new "hydrocarbon" law that will set terms for the future divisions of oil revenues, which account for 90 percent of Iraq's economy.

Sectarian rifts between the nation's political leaders have deepened and the political rhetoric has become increasingly more acrimonious. During a session of Parliament last week, prominent Sunni and Shiite legislators bitterly accused each other of sectarianism and promoting violence.

This month, during a rancorous meeting of the country's top leaders, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, erupted with a warning to his fellow leaders that their squabbles threatened a collapse of the state. Even the Shiite leaders who control the government have taken to conspiring among themselves, with open jockeying for the succession if Maliki should fall.

NBC says Iraq has 'civil war'

NBC News on Monday called the Iraq conflict a civil war - a decision that puts it at odds with the White House and that analysts said would increase public disillusionment with the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, Reuters reported from Washington.

NBC, a major U.S. television network, said on "The Today Show" that the Iraqi government's inability to stop spiraling violence between rival factions fit its definition of civil war.

The Bush administration has for months declined to call the violence a civil war, and a White House official on Monday disputed NBC's assessment.

Several analysts said NBC's decision was important as the administration would face more pressure to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq if the U.S. public comes to view the conflict as a civil war.

The decision "certainly is a major milestone," said Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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