WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers anxious about their 2008 election prospects are growing increasingly frustrated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's failure to unify his fractured country and reach the political benchmarks set by Congress.
Senior Republican lawmakers are pushing for "accountability hearings" to pressure the Iraqi government to make progress toward narrowing sectarian divides among Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds, sharing oil revenues and achieving other U.S. goals.
"I think it gets to a point where we have spent enough time and enough lives and enough money in this one particular spot," said Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who was one of 17 Republican House members who voted against the U.S. military buildup in Iraq last February.
"Our military has succeeded," Inglis said in an interview. "The question is whether Iraqi politicians can succeed. If they fail, it is not a U.S. failure. Let them go baby-sit a civil war."
While several prominent Republican senators have broken with President Bush on Iraq — notably Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner of Virginia, both of whom aren't seeking re-election — their counterparts in the House of Representatives largely have backed Bush despite ebbing public support for the war.
There are signs that the House Republican compliance is fading, especially as Republicans try to recapture control of Congress in next year's elections and lawmakers focus more on their own campaigns.
"In general, you're going to see more of a splitting with Bush," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who's written extensively on congressional elections.
"They're (Republican incumbents) going to seek mechanisms by which they can show their opposition on Iraq and gain credibility with the electorate," Geer said. "They will find ways to get those extra few votes to keep their jobs."
The House overwhelmingly passed a measure last week giving the Bush administration two months to deliver a plan to Congress for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq.
Though the Democratic-controlled House has passed various bills this year setting withdrawal dates or tying future war funds to a pullout, Tuesday's vote was the first time that large numbers of Republican members — all but 16 — went on record as requiring a withdrawal plan.
At a hearing Thursday, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, responded sympathetically to Iraq's top corruption fighter.
Radhi Hamza al Radhi, the head of the U.S.-backed Commission on Public Integrity, said Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials had protected ministers and blocked his steps to root out corruption, including the siphoning of millions of dollars to Sunni and Shiite Muslim militias.
Inglis, a fifth-term representative from reliably Republican South Carolina, asked for hearings to pressure the Maliki government in a letter Sept. 26 to Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the panel's senior Republican.
"The lack of political progress by the government of Iraq is a point of frustration for both Democrats and Republicans," Inglis' letter said.
Ros-Lehtinen, who didn't join Inglis and the other 16 Republicans in opposing the U.S. military surge in Iraq, said she supported his request.
"All of us are anxious to see progress toward a political settlement among Iraqi factions that will lead to greater stability and security in the country and will further U.S. strategic interests in the region," she said.
Lantos also was receptive.
"Chairman Lantos appreciates Mr. Inglis raising this important matter," said Lynne Weil, a Lantos spokeswoman.
Inglis said "there has been nowhere near enough progress" on the Iraqi government reaching what he called "the big three" benchmarks Congress mandated — though without deadlines — in May:
_ Sharing oil revenues among Iraq's 18 provinces and especially among its three main sects: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
_ Allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party to hold government, military and civilian posts.
_ Adopting constitutional amendments guaranteeing the rights of Sunnis, who held sway under Saddam, and other religious and ethnic minority groups.
"People are dying in Iraq because of the lack of action on these reconciliation goals," Inglis said. "That gives us the right and the obligation to insist on progress."
Inglis wants Congress to set "success checkpoints" for the Iraqi government to meet. These would take the 18 benchmarks it's already defined, add others and tie each of them to deadlines and concrete consequences — rewards or sanctions as specific as initiating or withholding a major water project.
Inglis has visited Iraq three times, most recently in April. His proposal, he said, amounts to using a series of "carrots and sticks" with its government.
"It will end with the biggest stick, which is saying, 'We're going to pull back to protect your borders,' and maybe even beyond that, 'We're leaving completely.' What it takes is getting that on a calendar."
Hearings that would amplify criticism of the Iraqi government are all but certain to draw opposition from Bush and his staunchest war allies in Congress.
While Bush has prodded Maliki to quicken the pace of political progress, the president says it's up to the Iraqi people — not the White House or Congress — to pressure the prime minister and determine the fate of his government.
Lawrence Butler, a State Department official who helps oversee Middle East policy, told lawmakers Thursday that agency rules prohibit his peers and him from publicly criticizing Maliki and the Iraqi government.
Such criticism, Butler said, would undermine U.S.-Iraqi relations and could endanger Americans working in Iraq.
GOP LAWMAKERS AGAINST SURGE
These Republican House members, listed in order of seniority, voted against the U.S. military troop increase in February:
Rep. Timothy Johnson, Illinois
Rep. Tom Petri, Wisconsin
Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina
Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr., Tennessee
Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan
Rep. Ron Paul, Texas
Rep. James Walsh, New York
Rep. Jim Ramstad, Minnesota
Rep. Michael Castle, Delaware
Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia
Rep. Walter Jones, North Carolina
Rep. Steven LaTourette, Ohio
Rep. Bob Inglis, South Carolina
Rep. Ric Keller, Florida
Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois
Rep. Phil English, Pennsylvania
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, Maryland
(Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)