Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is stepping up the pressure on Iraqi political leaders to reach an agreement on a new government after four months of stalemate and bickering.

With U.S. polls showing eroding public support for the war in Iraq, and voters preparing to take out their frustrations and fears in the fall elections, President Bush is getting tougher with the Iraqis. The word has gone out to Baghdad to get its act together, form a unity government and put factional differences in the rear-view mirror for now. America's patience is finite, and the time is coming when Iraq must either pull together or -- well, the U.S. isn't saying what comes next, not yet, but the administration's warnings are clear and chilling.

First came admonitions from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that, in the end, the Iraqis were going to win this fight for their national survival and freedom or they would lose it. Yes, the U.S. would be there when needed, but Iraqis would have to fight the bulk of the battles on their own.

Rumsfeld didn't mince words: He said he sees a day when U.S. military support levels will be gradually reduced to the point where the U.S. role would be largely military training and resource backup in weaponry, logistics and financial aid. President Bush followed up more recently by telling the Iraqis he wanted to see some progress on forming a new government. It has been four months since the last elections there, and its leaders have been unable to unite behind Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

But the strongest signal of U.S. displeasure and impatience came this week when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad Sunday to urge political leaders to stop their feuding and get on with the job of forming a government that will unite the country.

In an exhaustive daylong meeting that continued into the night, Rice and Straw used their bluntest language yet to convince the Iraqi politicians that they had to come together or risk losing the support of the Iraqi people at a time when the very survival of their country hung in the balance.

Rice said later, according to press dispatches, that she was "very direct" with the Iraqi leaders, particularly Jaafari, telling them "the Iraqi people are losing patience." In the sharpest face-to-face lecturing yet by a top U.S. official, she told them "your international allies want to see this get done because you can't continue to leave a political vacuum."

Clearly, Jaafari has lost whatever support he had. It is reported that Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, which won more than 30 seats in the parliament in December, has withdrawn its support for the prime minister.

Both Rice and Straw made it clear they had every right to press the Iraqis for some movement toward a new government. The U.S. and Great Britain have paid for that right with the blood of their soldiers, Straw told them. Rice spoke frankly of the "human treasure" the two nations, among others, had sacrificed over the past three years in behalf of the Iraqis.

Now it was up to them to show that the sacrifice had been worth it. "The American people want to see Iraq succeed, but they want to see Iraq progress toward success," she said.

Until now, the U.S. has not taken sides in the jockeying and trade-offs for leadership in the new government, but that posture underwent a noticeable change Sunday. The body language (if not the diplomatic signs) was clear: Jaafari had to go, and a stronger leader had to be put in his place.

"When the two (Rice and Straw) met with Jaafari in front of reporters, the tension was noticeable," the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler reported. "Rice sat with a frozen smile as she and Jaafari made awkward conversation about the stormy weather outside."

After a meeting described as "frosty" by Kessler, at which Rice bluntly criticized Jaafari's inability to pull the warring factions together, Rice said the Iraqis had "to get a prime minister who can form a government."

The dark clouds hanging over that meeting were in sharp contrast to the sunny atmosphere at a later meeting with Vice President Mahdi, who came close to upsetting Jaafari as prime minister in February. "It's wonderful to see you," Rice gushed several times.

Jaafari's replacement may happen sooner rather than later, and, if it does, Rice and Straw will get much of the credit for the change in direction. If their mission to Baghdad could be summed up in a few words, it would be "no more Mr. Nice Guy."

The time for diplomatic schmoozing was over. America's best and bravest have given their lives so the Iraqis would have the freedom to choose their own government. They had better act soon, for our patience is coming to an end.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.