Senator John Warner, who heads the US Armed Services Committee, came back from a visit to Iraq earlier this week saying he was discouraged by the 'steps backward' the country has taken since he last visited.
Warner said, however, that he would have 'faith' and give the Iraqi government another two to three months to execute its four- point plan to bring Iraqi militia and tribal groups to a political consensus. The plan was introduced this week.
But if nothing improved within three months, an increasingly impatient US Congress would assert itself in bringing about a change in strategy, Warner indicated.
The White House Friday dismissed the suggestion that Warner's remarks signalled the prospect of a change in Iraq strategy. It said that US President George W Bush - who insists the US won't leave 'as long as I'm the president' - had not met with Warner, adding that the US anticipated a 'spike of violence during Ramadan.'
Warner, in remarks Thursday, also raised doubts about the four- point plan announced this week by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki.
'I think it's a responsibility of our government internally to determine: Is there a change of course that we should take?' Warner told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday.
Warner's remarks pointed out growing unease among senior Republicans about the course of the war in Iraq as they face difficult Congressional elections in November, where they could lose control in either or both houses.
Bush has taken an increasingly strident tone in campaign appearances, charging that Democratic criticism of the government's conduct of the war means they are soft on terrorism.
Warner revealed that a top Republican behind-the-scenes player, James Baker III, was heading a bipartisan panel to suggest 'new concepts and ideas' on the way forward in Iraq. The report is to be presented to the legislature and White House after the elections.
Warner said that if things don't turn around within the next 60 to 90 days, Congress would have to assert its 'own leadership' on the issue as a 'co-equal branch with the exectuvie branch.'
'The next 60- to 90 dads are critical,' he repeated.
Warner's remarks came as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Iraq to urge al-Maliki and President Jalal Talibani to step up to the challenges of coping with a resilient insurgency while trying to prevent a full blown civil war between Shiites and Sunnis.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino Friday dismissed the suggestion that Warner's remarks and Rice's visit to Iraq represented the beginnings of a warning to the Iraqi government that US strategy could change within 60 to 90 days.
The week has been one of the bloodiest for US soldiers there, with 23 deaths. Warner said that the current US troop level of 140,000 would be needed for the 'foreseeable future' and ruled out any increase.
'I do not think more and more coalition troops ... is the answer to that question at this point in time,' Warner said. 'There may have been other times when it would have been a good idea.'
Warner said he would not 'take off the table any option at this time.'
'It seems to me that the situation is simply drifting side-wise and that, while I believe the government is trying .... the various departments and agencies ... are simply not (meeting) fundamental reponsibilities of a government.'
Warner's doubts about al-Maliki's plan focussed on the inability of the US state and defence departments to even get a copy of the signed document.
'It's hard to see this government beginning to seize the full reins of sovereignty, which we have given them,' Warner said. 'You do not see them taking the levers of sovereignty and pulling and pushing them, and doing what is necessary to bring about a situation in Iraq whereby the people are able to live, have sufficient food and fresh water, and have a sense of confidence in their government that they're going forward.'
Warner called for the Iraqi government to distribute proceeds from the oil fields to benefit all the Iraqi people, after visiting the Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province, where he said there was a 'feeling they're not getting their fair share of any part of government distribution of benefits to the people.'
Warner ruled out suggestions of a partition of Iraq, which would feed regional insecurities.
'The bordering countries are not going to sit around and allow the state of Iraq to be chopped up,' Warner said.