WASHINGTON -- Two Republican senators said Monday that unless Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki makes more political progress by January, the U.S. should consider pulling political or financial support for his government.
The stern warnings, coming from Sens. Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss, are an indication that while GOP patience on the war has greatly increased this fall because of security gains made by the military, it isn't bottomless.
"I do expect them to deliver," Graham, R-S.C., said in a phone interview upon returning from a Thanksgiving trip to Iraq. "What would happen for me if there's no progress on reconciliation after the first of the year, I would be looking at ways to invest our money into groups that can deliver."
Chambliss, R-Ga., who traveled with Graham as part of a larger congressional delegation, said lawmakers might even call for al-Maliki's ouster if Baghdad didn't reach agreement on at least some of the major issues seen as key to tamping down sectarian violence.
"If we don't see positive results by the end of the year I think you'll probably see a strong message coming out of Congress calling for a change in administration," he said in a conference call with reporters.
Chambliss said the visit proved to him that security has improved as a result of this year's troop build-up. But he said the improvements "are not irreversible" and that political progress is critical to maintaining stability.
Republican support for the war is crucial, especially in the Senate where Democrats hold a narrow majority and routinely come up eight or so votes short when trying to pass anti-war legislation.
While GOP support stumbled this summer as voter opposition to the war grew, Republicans have since rallied behind President Bush's Iraq policies because of a sharp reduction in violence largely credited to a buildup of 30,000 additional troops. U.S. combat deaths in Iraq stood at 38 last month, down from 126 in May, 101 in June and 65 in September.
Congressional Democrats contend the troop buildup is only a temporary fix and that security will deteriorate again after the military reduces its force levels, which it plans to do this year.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said he wants to withdraw the 30,000 additional forces by July 1.
Graham and Chambliss said the recent military gains are remarkable, but they agree with Democrats that the political progress has been disappointing. Graham, an early ally of Bush's troop buildup, said he would lose confidence in al-Maliki's government if it could not pass by January a law that would ease curbs on former Baathists from holding government jobs.
Noting the large amounts of reconstruction and other economic aid provided to the central government, Graham said that if progress remains stagnant U.S. might want to consider "putting our money into some of the provinces where they have reconciled."
"There are no more excuses as far as I'm concerned not to achieve some benchmark success," he said.
Both senators expressed optimism that Baghdad would rise to the challenge.
"Time will tell," Chambliss said. "They have committed to doing everything they can," he added.
On their trip to Iraq, Chambliss and Graham were joined by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Utah's Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman.