BAGHDAD - U.S. military commanders say a key goal of the "surge" offensive is to buy time for Iraq's leaders to reach political benchmarks that can unite the fractured coalition government and persuade insurgents to stop fighting.
But in trying to pressure the Iraqis to speed up, U.S. officials are encountering a litany of hurdles: The National Assembly is riven by personality and sect, and some politicians are abandoning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. There is deep mistrust of U.S. intentions, especially among Shiites who see American efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process as an attempt to weaken the Shiites' grip on power.
Many Iraqi politicians view the U.S. pressure as bullying that reminds them they are under occupation. And the security offensive has failed to stop the violence that is widening the sectarian divide.
"The Americans should take into consideration the Iraqi situation and its complications, not just their own internal politics," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator.
Even as U.S. lawmakers propose timelines for a troop withdrawal, 10 weeks into the security plan there has been little or no progress in achieving three key political benchmarks set by the Bush administration: new laws governing the sharing of Iraq's oil resources, permission for many former members of the banned Baath Party to return to their jobs, and amendments to Iraq's constitution.
As divisions mount, a bitter, prolonged legislative struggle is hindering prospects for political reconciliation.
"They are all up in the air," said Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite who is chairman of Iraq's De-Baathification Commission. "They certainly are not going to be produced in any timetable that is acceptable within the context of the current political climate in the United States."
Other benchmarks, such as provincial elections, a political agreement on dismantling militias, and a program for reconciliation announced in July, also have not moved forward, Iraqi officials said.
Iraqi politicians across the sectarian spectrum said their political process was being hijacked by American domestic politics. Pressured by congressional Democrats and growing antiwar sentiment at home, senior U.S. officials are growing impatient.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has declared that the "clock is ticking" for political progress. He urged Iraq's National Assembly not to take a scheduled two-month recess and to pass by the end of summer an oil law and the proposal to reverse the de-Baathification law.
Even if compromises are reached on the three benchmarks, the final legislation is unlikely to resemble the administration's blueprint. Maliki's aides are already stressing that they cannot control how Iraq's divided, 275-member assembly will react to the proposals.
"When the Americans give orders, people will be more against it," Othman said. "That's what the Americans don't understand."
Here is the status of the three critical benchmarks:
Oil. In February, Iraq's cabinet approved a U.S.-backed draft law that would give the central government control over Iraq's oil reserves, the third-largest in the world. But the legislation has yet to be introduced for a vote in the assembly, primarily because of opposition from Kurdish legislators who do not trust the central government to distribute oil revenues.
De-Baathification. On March 26, then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Maliki announced a proposal to allow thousands more former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to rejoin the government or get pensions. But less than 24 hours later, it quickly unraveled. Religious Shiites in Maliki's ruling coalition opposed key elements of the proposal. "We are suffering a political chaos," Hashimi said. "I thought when Maliki signed and gave his endorsement, he had done his homework and convinced his colleagues."
Constitution. In October 2005, Khalilzad brokered a deal with Hashimi and Sunni Arab leaders: In exchange for their participation in a referendum on Iraq's new constitution, the document would be amended to address Sunni concerns by September 2006. But that has not happened, and Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds remain split over the proposed division of Iraq into autonomous regions under a federal system, the authorities of the prime minister and the president, the national identity of Iraq, and the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The political benchmarks, Hamoudi said, are on track - on an Iraqi timetable.
"We have a saying in Iraq. We say inshallah [God willing]. We never say yes," Hamoudi said. "And inshallah has many interpretations."