Senior US politicians have sparred over the US military presence in Iraq as lawmakers in Baghdad struggle to meet a second deadline to craft a new constitution.
Reflecting what many see as growing public disenchantment with the course of US President George W Bush's Iraq policy, several American lawmakers called on Sunday for Bush to enunciate an "exit strategy" from Iraq while pressing Iraqi politicians to take hold of their own fate.
"We should start figuring out how we get out of there," influential Republican Senator Chuck Hagel told Fox News on Sunday.
"I think our involvement there has destabilised the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilisation will occur," said Hagel, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
"I believe our message has got to be the following: 'You folks have got to solve your political issues, not duck them. You've got to settle them'," Senator Carl Levin, a senior Democrat, told CNN.
"Unless you come together in a comprehensive way, reach an agreement through this constitution, we are going to have to consider setting a timetable for departure," Levin said.
Hagel and Levin spoke as Iraqi politicians raced to beat a second deadline to craft a new permanent constitution. The first deadline, 15 August, was missed due to sharp differences over regional autonomy, the role of Islam in lawmaking, and control of resources like oil.
An Iraqi government official said on Sunday that a draft could be submitted to parliament on Monday without resolving those points of dispute.
"It is a possibility they can submit a draft with most articles agreed on, and maybe leave one or two articles for further debate.
US lawmakers have mixed views
about Iraq's political process
No need to hold the whole process just for the sake of one article," Laith Kubba, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, told CNN.
Other US lawmakers said they were encouraged by the constitutional process in Iraq and said the calls for an exit strategy were defeatist.
"If they can constitute a free and just society with this constitution that they're working on right now, I think that that will be something, a real measurement, a real benchmark," Republican Senator George Allen said.
"Iraq is a central front in the war on terror, and it is absolutely essential that we win it. We cannot tuck tail and run. We have to prevail," Allen said.
Four more years
The politicians' comments came a day after the US army's top general, Peter Schoomaker, said in a widely reported media interview that the Pentagon is planning for the possibility that 100,000 American troops could be in Iraq for another four years.
While Hagel and Levin said this was the wrong message to be sending to Iraqis, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham emphasised that the real problem was to establish an effective government in Iraq.
"Deadlines are important ... but we need to get this right," said Graham.
Currently some 138000 US troops
are deployed across the nation
"The worst case scenario is not staying four years. The worst case scenario is leaving a dysfunctional repressive government behind that becomes part of the problem in the war on terror and not the solution," he said.
More than 1800 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, since the March 2003 invasion, and thousands more wounded in a conflict with a price tag in the tens of billions of dollars.
There are some 138,000 US troops deployed across Iraq.