BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The Bush administration is bumping up against the limits of military and political power to influence what happens next in Iraq, four years into an increasingly unpopular war that has not gone as planned.

As U.S. officials now acknowledge, the cycle of sectarian killings poses a greater threat than does al-Qaida or the anti-American insurgency.

“The security situation is not one that can be tolerated and it is not one that is being helped by political inaction,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week at the start of a two-day trip to Iraq.

The day Rice arrived, a leading Republican and Bush loyalist offered a bleak assessment of Iraq. Sen John Warner, R-Va., said Iraq is “drifting sideways” and that the U.S. military has done what it could.

Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress must make some “bold decisions” if, after three months, the Iraqis have not made progress to calm ethnic violence and hasten reconstruction.

Rice’s visit came a month before the fall elections in the United States that Democrats are portraying as a referendum on President Bush’s handling of Iraq. Associated Press-Ipsos polling in September found that more than half of likely voters say the U.S. is losing ground in Iraq, and Democrats got higher marks than Republicans about which party would best handle the conflict. Forty-six percent of likely voters said Democrats and 40 percent said Republicans.

Democrats argue that Iraq had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks and that the war has been a costly distraction from the global effort to combat al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

In Iraq’s capital, Rice reaffirmed Bush’s commitment to help Iraqis finish the job.

She also carried an implicit warning about Americans’ patience as she shuttled under heavy guard among the often squabbling factions in Iraq’s fragile government.

People in the U.S., she told the Iraqi politicians, do not see the complicated history of grudges and strife among ethnic groups that drives the current violence.

“What they see are Iraqis killing Iraqis, and that is not a good image,” a U.S. diplomat who attended the meetings later quoted Rice as saying. “The world, the American people, need to see different views. They need to see Iraqis working together and producing progress.”

In other words, Rice was saying, the folks at home who are bankrolling the war at $300 billion and counting may not see why American lives and dollars are being spent to police internecine fighting half a world away.

The U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Rice’s sessions with Shiites, Sunnis and others were private, also said Rice was frank about the stakes.

Rice told the Iraqis that “of all of the threats facing Iraq – the insurgency, al-Qaida terror, sectarian violence – it’s sectarian violence that poses the strategic threat to success, as Iraqis would define it, for their country and in certainly success as we would define it for Iraq.”

It also is the force that the United States has the least leverage to counter. The bodies dumped on Baghdad streets each night are unrelated to the presence of U.S. troops, although mounting deaths among U.S. soldiers reflect the latest attempt to slow the revenge killings.

The United States has put increasing pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop sectarian violence amid deep divisions within his Cabinet between Shiite and Sunni parties.

Sunnis complain al-Maliki is hesitant to take tough action against Shiite militias because many of them are linked to parties he relies on. His signature plan to contain the spiral of violence in Baghdad has had little effect, and it is not clear how much authority he commands to do more.

The U.S. claim that democratic politics will triumph in Iraq depends largely on al-Maliki’s success, and Rice praised him as a strong and capable leader.

At the same time, she told reporters, she was firm in “saying very clearly to all of them that what the Iraqi people expect, and indeed what the United States expects, is that they’re going to overcome any political differences rapidly.”

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