The U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, was abruptly summoned to Washington on Tuesday for discussions with senior officials on ways to speed up efforts to organize a new Iraqi government.
The hastily arranged White House meetings came as U.S. officials expressed growing frustration with Iraqi transitional authorities and concern about attacks on U.S. forces.
As Bremer consulted in Washington, mortar rounds fell Tuesday night on Baghdad's "green zone," the high-security area where Bremer and the American-led coalition forces and civilian staff live and work. At least two landed in the zone, according to a coalition spokesman. As many as four more landed outside. No casualties were reported.
The mortar barrage came hours after the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, pledged that his soldiers would take a hard line in combating an ever-bolder insurgency.
"We are taking the fight into the safe havens of the enemy, into the heartland of the country," Sanchez said in a rare hour-long news conference. He said the coalition would drop bombs and destroy houses if that was what it took to crush the militants.
Asked whether insurgents, who this month have shot down two U.S. military helicopters, pose a growing threat, Sanchez said: "You've got to be realistic. When you see we had five to six attacks a day in May and now it's 30, it's unmistakable that the number of engagements is increasing."
Bremer met at the White House with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and other officials in a session focused on how to hasten the development of an Iraqi constitution and the holding of elections.
Administration officials have grown impatient with the U.S.-organized Iraqi Governing Council, which has fallen badly behind in its work. Some ideas have been discussed to make the transitional structure work better and faster, officials said.
Some U.S. officials have even raised the question of whether it would be preferable -- following the model used in Afghanistan -- to create a transitional government with more authority that would allow the U.S.-led coalition to more quickly reduce its role.
"There are ideas floating now about how to strengthen the process in the interim period," said one senior official, who asked not to be named.
But he insisted that reports that the administration would junk the Governing Council were "overdramatic" and that the focus of the hourlong meeting with Bremer was how to progress to a new government and constitution.
The officials discussed ways to ensure that the 24 members of the Governing Council would meet the Dec. 15 deadline for creating a timetable for a new constitution, called for by a United Nations Security Council resolution. Also considered was how to start spending $18 billion recently approved by Congress for Iraq's reconstruction, officials said.
At the same time, the senior official said that the possibility remained open that "down the road," the search could lead to an alternative structure for an interim government.
Bathsheba Crocker, a specialist in postwar reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the model used in Afghanistan could have advantages from the administration's perspective.
It could "allow the United States to move out of its occupation mode and would still allow the Iraqis to have all the time they needed to draft a constitution and hold elections," she said.
U.S. officials are eager to accelerate the transition, yet "holding elections too quickly has never worked," she said, noting the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia.
In an interview from Baghdad, Iyad Allawi, one of the Governing Council's nine rotating presidents, insisted that although the group had fallen behind schedule, it was natural that the process should take time. "This is democracy," he said, adding that he had heard no complaints directly from U.S. officials.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered a blunter assessment Tuesday of the shortcomings of the Iraqi Governing Council.
Asked whether the Bush administration should seek to change its political strategy in Iraq, Lugar replied, "Probably we should, and the question is how to proceed."
He suggested that the administration consider an Iraqi version of the Afghan loya jirga, the convention of tribal leaders that appointed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's interim president.
Lugar said he understood that some members of the Governing Council were "genuinely frightened" by the security situation following the assassination of one of their members, but he said the monthly rotation of the presidency had created an unseemly parade of Iraqi leaders traveling abroad as international celebrities who were neglecting their responsibilities.
In his Baghdad news conference, Sanchez described an increasingly organized opposition and an Iraqi population reluctant to help the coalition because they fear reprisals.
Attacks are likely to increase, he said -- at least for the next couple of months.
Sanchez pledged that U.S. military would strike back with the full range of force at its disposal, a policy that began shortly after insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter 10 days ago, killing 16 soldiers.
"Although the coalition can be benevolent, this is the same lethal formation that removed the previous regime, and we will not hesitate to employ the appropriate levels of combat power," he said. "Not surprisingly, the enemy has reacted to our operations and our progress with increased violence."
In the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, a morning rush-hour explosion on a road frequently used by British troops killed six Iraqi civilians, hospital officials said.
In Baghdad on Tuesday, a bomb hidden in a manhole near the court of appeals building exploded, injuring four Iraqi policemen, two prisoners and two court workers, according to witnesses.
The northern city of Mosul has seen several attacks in recent days, including one on a U.S. military camp and several on nearby oil pipelines.
U.S. efforts to defeat the insurgency have been hampered by inadequate intelligence, caused in part by the reluctance of Iraqis to work with coalition forces.
The coalition now believes that foreign fighters, Iraqi jihadis and former regime members are collaborating in mounting attacks, Sanchez said.
Some of the foreigners may have links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, although Sanchez acknowledged that interrogations of non-Iraqi Arabs in custody have yet to prove direct connections. He said that up to 20 suspected Al Qaeda militants were among the 5,000 people in the coalition's custody.
Perhaps most worrisome is that after months of insisting there was only local coordination among anti-American insurgents, Sanchez said the military now believed there was some regional command and control and even some national coordination or consensus on targets.
That suggests an opposition force that has become entrenched and organized and as a result will be harder to root out.
"We've also had a few indicators that at least intent is operating at the national level," Sanchez said. "When you see concerted efforts to intimidate police across the country, when you see demonstrations that are pro-Saddam [Hussein] that manifest themselves in various parts of the country, that tells us there's some sort of intent that is operating."
Richter reported from Washington and Rubin from Baghdad. Times staff writers Sonni Efron and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.