YWT: "It's a matter of word play, isn't it?"
JIM CLANCY: U.S. officials say Iraq's government has agreed to a realistic timeline of steps that could finally end years of war.
HALA GORANI: The news comes just two weeks before U.S. elections, as polls show most Americans believe no side is winning in Iraq.
Here's a quick look at the latest.
CLANCY: Now, the top U.S. political and military officials in Iraq say success is possible. They say Iraqi forces should be ready to take over security responsibilities within 12 to 18 months.
GORANI: As violence takes more and more lives, a new poll shows only one in five Americans believes that the U.S. is winning the war.
CLANCY: A senator from President Bush's own party calls Iraq on the verge of chaos.
GORANI: Let's begin with a closer look at the steps meant to stem the bloodshed and mend a bitter sectarian divide. They cover everything from disbanding militias, to sharing the profits from Iraq's vast oil reserves.
Michael Ware joins us now from Baghdad with more.
Michael, before we get to you, I would like you to listen in on something the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said regarding Muqtada al-Sadr, and then I'll have you analyze it and react.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KHALILZAD: Muqtada al-Sadr has said that they do not represent him and that those who carry weapons without government permission need to be dealt with. He has expressed support for the government, and now the government needs to move forward.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GORANI: Michael, does this sound realistic, given your knowledge on the ground of how these militias operate, that they'll agree to disband and support the current government?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well to be frank, Hala, no, not at all. I mean, it's a matter of word play, isn't it? I mean, what is a militia?
Muqtada is against militias, but does he consider his forces of the Mahdi army, Jaish al Mahdi, to be a militia? The dominant political faction within the Shia alliance within this government, the party SCIRI, says that it's militia is not a militia either. The Badr militia says, "We no longer bear arms, and therefore we have developed into a humanitarian organization," which U.S. and British intelligence say has infiltrated the security forces and is linked to many other death squads.
So, really, it is, what is a militia and who thinks what that might be -- Hala.
GORANI: And what about this timeline, 12 to 18 months -- we've heard this before. We've heard six months a few years ago -- and how easy is it to predict or difficult it is to predict what will happen in Iraq 18 months from now? Certainly a year and a half ago it was -- it would have been very difficult for us to predict the situation -- what the situation is now -- Michael.
WARE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's proven time and time again that Iraq is not something that one can foretell with any kind of accuracy.
We've heard timelines like this so often before. And these benchmarks that have now been set by Ambassador Khalilzad, we've heard each and every one of them just about before as well.
He says the Iraqi government must now step up to these benchmarks. Well, they didn't a year ago. They didn't 18 months ago. The real question is, for Ambassador Khalilzad, what happens when these benchmarks are not met -- Hala.
GORANI: Yes, that is the question. What does happen then? Where does that leave not only the U.S. military, but Iraqis themselves?
WARE: Well, that's -- that is a great question. I mean, the government says ultimately they answer back to the people and to the parliament. But, I mean, again, that's just savvy politicking.
The reality is that certain militias and political blocs have carved up power here. Obviously to the exclusion of the Sunnis, a group that the American administration is particularly targeting.
But this government alone in the form of Prime Minister Maliki is relatively powerless and is merely propped up by the Americans and to a lesser degree, by Muqtada al-Sadr himself, the head of this, you know, militia that the Americans are targeting -- Hala.
GORANI: All right. Michael, one last question there regarding the division of wealth, the division of Iraqi oil.
If this, as the U.S. says, has become more a fight over resources rather than a resistance against what they perceive as U.S. military occupation, if there is a legal framework surrounding the division of resources in Iraq, will that take the sting out of the sectarian conflict or not?
WARE: I very much doubt it, because whatever is on paper doesn't necessarily play out in reality. I mean, you know, the people who control this government or the dominant factions have so far not shown a proclivity to share.
And we've seen the head of SCIRI today during prayers for Eid reiterate his party's push to divide the country. This is the very thing that the Sunnis fear, that the oil will go with the two other partitions.
So this is something that Ambassador Khalilzad hammered, and this is one of the key benchmarks. If it's not met, what happens? He's hinted that an international compact that's being worked on to get the Iraqi government to commit to do what's necessary, he said today, most interestingly, in exchange for the international community's support, hinting that if they don't do this, they are going to start losing international community support.
Does that mean money? That's the real question -- Hala.
GORANI: All right. Michael Ware live in Baghdad.
Thanks, Michael -- Jim.