The Bush administration will intensify its efforts to prod the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take greater responsibility...

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will intensify its efforts to prod the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take greater responsibility for governing and pacifying the country, senior U.S. officials said Saturday.

The new plan, which is still being developed, calls for Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to agree to a series of milestones in 2007 for disarming Iraq’s sectarian militias, restoring its economic infrastructure, rooting out official corruption, expanding government services and strengthening local governments, the officials said.

President Bush discussed the plan, as well as broader strategic and tactical issues in Iraq, with his top military commanders on Saturday, and the officials stressed that any effort to step up the pressure on the Iraqi government would be consistent with the president’s longtime strategy.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld alluded to the evolving plan on Friday, when he said of the Iraqis: “It’s their country. They’re going to have to govern it, they’re going to have to provide security for it and they’re going to have to do it sooner rather than later.”

Iraq developments

Market attack: Suspected Sunni Arab insurgents set off five bicycle bombs and rained mortar rounds on a market crowded with shoppers Saturday, killing 32 Iraqis in Mahmoudiyah, a predominantly Shiite city south of Baghdad.

Marines killed: Three Marines were killed in attacks in the western province of Anbar, making October the deadliest month for U.S. forces since 84 U.S. troops were killed in November 2005. Seventy-eight American service members have died this month.

Gunfights south of Baghdad: Gunfights between members of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and its rival Badr Brigade militia, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), broke out Saturday in Hamza al-Gharbi, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. The new bloodshed came after Iraqi security forces reasserted control over the southern city of Amarah, where rogue members of the Mahdi Army briefly seized control Friday.

The Washington Post

On Friday Rumsfeld said U.S. officials — Gen. George Casey, head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad among them — are working with the Iraqi government to develop projections as to when they think they can pass off various pieces of responsibility for security and governing.

The New York Times, in an article to be published today, said a plan being formulated by Casey and Khalilzad would likely for the first time outline to Iraq milestones for disarming sectarian militias and meeting other political and economic goals. But it said the blueprint, to be presented to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by the end of this year, would not threaten Iraq with a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The U.S. officials, all of whom agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations with the Iraqi government are sensitive, said the plan is likely to be backed by an explicit economic carrot and an implicit military stick.

They said that if the Iraqi government agrees to what one official called “reasonable and measurable benchmarks,” the administration would be prepared to ask Congress to approve millions of dollars in additional aid to Iraq, much of it earmarked for economic and political purposes.

If Maliki and other officials balk or continue to drag their feet, one of the officials said, the administration would be forced to “reconsider all its options.” Asked what that meant, the official said that one option might be to announce plans to begin a gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. That, he said, would give Maliki both time and an added incentive to reconsider his own options.

The new tactic could take some pressure off Republican candidates in next month’s elections at a time when many are finding it increasingly difficult to defend the administration’s “stay the course” rhetoric.