BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. officials have switched metaphors to describe the persistent failure of Iraq's feuding leaders to reach a power sharing deal to cement military gains.
Before, slow political progress was explained by a Washington clock and Baghdad clock ticking at different speeds, now talk is of a window of opportunity, bought by a 30,000-strong U.S. troop "surge", slowly closing.
With violence sharply down in Iraq and the U.S. military planning to reduce its forces to pre-surge levels by mid-2008, the focus has switched back to the inability of Iraq's Shi'ite- led government to reach an accommodation with former foes.
"Without such accommodation, military victories are irrelevant," says Iraq analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Despite the improved security, it is still far from clear that the leaders of Iraq's Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni Arab political parties are any more willing or able to set aside decades of mistrust to take the steps needed for reconciliation.
"The Iraqis are scared to death of each other. In this high -risk game of poker, people are trying to figure out how real is this, how permanent is this, how dangerous is accommodation?" said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States.
Analysts also say the Shi'ite Islamist government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is more concerned with consolidating the Shi'ites' new-found political power than reconciling with Sunni Arabs, who were politically dominant under Saddam Hussein.
"One of the problems is that as Shi'ites in the government see that al Qaeda is growing weaker, their natural reaction is ... to take advantage of effectively the United States defeating their opponent and to try to consolidate power," said Cordesman.
The government insists it is committed to reconciliation, saying it is working on key legislative benchmarks for example.
But Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab politicians interviewed by Reuters this week said parties were still far from finding common ground and no progress was likely before the new year.
"There is no trust between them, no mutual understanding," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament.
Before the September report to Congress by U.S. commander General David Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker, Washington sent emissaries to Baghdad to press the government to pass laws seen as vital for reconciling Iraq's warring sects.
The eight benchmarks included measures to reform a law banning former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party holding office and agreeing how to equitably share Iraq's oil wealth.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that as of October 25, the Iraqi government had met one legislative benchmark and partially met another. The cabinet this week sent a fourth draft of a de-Baathification law to parliament, while the oil minister said approval of the oil law was still months away.
"The benchmarks are not likely to work -- the political consensus to make them happen is not there and the ability of the government to implement them is questionable," said Terry Kelly, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation and once a policy adviser to former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Since the September report, the pressure on Maliki's government from Washington has noticeably eased, at least publicly. This may signal a change in strategy as officials try to put the focus on signs of reconciliation at the local level.
Testifying before Congress, Crocker and Petraeus repeatedly emphasized how the Baghdad government was sharing oil revenues with the provinces without the oil law having been passed, and how it was reaching out to former Baathist military officers.
U.S. officials also note the government's nervous embrace of "concerned local citizens", armed groups drawn mainly from Sunni Arab tribes now working with the U.S. military.
Biddle, who has just returned from a 10-day trip to Iraq, sees this as evidence of what he calls "toe-dipping".
"What appears to be happening is that national-level politicians seem to be making an experimental test of reconciliation that they are not willing to legislate," he said.
"So, they won't pass any laws for anything but they are willing to dip their toe into the water and see what it feels like and see what kind of reaction they get."
But there is skepticism this ad hoc approach will foster broader national reconciliation, and if the broad-based compromises fail to emerge, then what next?
"There are a lot of Americans who believe the job is essentially done, so the (U.S.) administration is increasingly going to be confronted with this, particularly in an election year," said Wayne White, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Near East Intelligence Office.
"This is the time for threats. This is the time when you go to them and say our surge forces are leaving ... and if you continue to dither we will withdraw beyond the surge elements."
But one Western analyst said it could be a mistaken belief to assume key Iraqi leaders wanted to see progress.
"There are many who believe they are positioning themselves to grab complete power after MNF-I (U.S.-led forces) draws down," he said.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, editing by Peter Millership)