WASHINGTON – The Bush administration will intensify its efforts to prod the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to take greater responsibility for governing and pacifying the country, senior U.S. officials said Saturday.

The new plan, which is still being developed, calls for Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to agree to a series of milestones in 2007 for disarming Iraq’s sectarian militias, restoring its economic infrastructure, rooting out official corruption, expanding government services and strengthening local governments, the officials said.

President Bush discussed the plan, as well as broader strategic and tactical issues in Iraq, with his top military commanders on Saturday, and the officials stressed that any effort to step up the pressure on the Iraqi government would be consistent with the president’s longtime strategy.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld alluded to the evolving plan on Friday, when he said of the Iraqis: “It’s their country. They’re going to have to govern it, they’re going to have to provide security for it, and they’re going to have to do it sooner rather than later.”

The U.S. officials, all of whom agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations with the Iraqi government are sensitive, said the plan is likely to be backed by an explicit economic carrot and an implicit military stick.

They said that if the Iraqi government agrees to what one official called “reasonable and measurable benchmarks”, the administration would be prepared to ask Congress to approve millions of dollars in additional aid to Iraq, much of it earmarked for economic and political purposes.

If Maliki and other officials balk or continue to drag their feet, one of the officials said, the administration would be forced to “reconsider all its options.” Asked what that meant, the official said that one option might be to announce plans to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. That, he said, would give Maliki both time and an added incentive to reconsider his own options.

The new tactic could take some pressure off Republican candidates in next month’s elections at a time when many are finding it increasingly difficult to defend the administration’s “stay the course” rhetoric. It also could blunt Democratic calls for a new direction in Iraq or for a phased withdrawal of American forces.

However, U.S. military officers, diplomats and intelligence officials acknowledged that applying pressure to the Maliki government would carry some risks. They said that those include:

• While their intention is to work cooperatively with the Iraqis, the officials said, overt U.S. pressure could reinforce the impression among Iraqis and other Muslims that the Iraqi government is a U.S. puppet. That could undermine Maliki’s legitimacy and aid recruiting by foreign terrorist groups and sectarian militias.

• The administration could ask the Maliki government to do more than it’s capable of doing. For example, said one military officer who’s served in Iraq, an effort to disarm the country’s increasingly powerful Shiite militias could trigger even more violence and invite what the officer called “even more meddling by the Iranians”.

Iran backs two major Shiite militias, the Badr Organization, which is allied with a major Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Mahdi Army of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

But with many Iraqi Sunnis long since convinced that much of the Iraqi military and security force is allied with Shiite militias and death squads, Maliki would have no hope of dismantling the largely Sunni insurgency or defeating foreign terrorists, most of whom also are Sunnis, without confronting the Shiite militias.

“It’s not clear whether al Maliki and his government could survive a campaign against the militias,” said one senior official. That could drag American troops even deeper into Iraq’s sectarian violence.

• The plan may not be enough to stem rising U.S. casualty rate in Iraq or the erosion of public support for the administration’s Iraq policies. Democrats now appear poised to win control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 7 congressional elections, and with it power over the federal budget.

A new Newsweek poll released on Saturday found that 65 percent of Americans think the U.S. is losing ground in Iraq, an all-time low in the Newsweek Poll, and that 54 percent think it was a mistake to take military action against Iraq, compared to 39 percent who think it was the right thing to do. The poll of 1,000 adults has a margin or error of plus or minus four percentage points.

The Pentagon Saturday reported the deaths of three more Marines in Iraq’s violent Anbar province, making this the costliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq in two years, with 78 Americans killed so far.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, the president acknowledged that “the last few weeks have been rough for our troops in Iraq, and for the Iraqi people” but likened the conflict to World War II and the Cold War. “The fighting is difficult, but our nation has seen difficult fights before,” Bush said. “In World War II and the Cold War, earlier generations of Americans sacrificed so that we can live in freedom. This generation will do its duty as well.”

However, said one senior administration official on Saturday, the Iraqi government must do its duty, too.

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