The US is putting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and fellow Iraqi leaders on the clock, as frustration in Washington mounts at his government's inability to stem raging violence.
A fearsome week in Iraq which saw Baghdad's worst rash of bombings in three years and a surge in the numbers of US soldiers killed, tightened the political screws on President George W. Bush's administration ahead of crucial November elections.
Top US officials further sharpened the public US message towards the Maliki government -- a process which started with anonymous quotes by US officials leaked to US newspapers in September -- and reached a new pitch when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into Baghdad on Thursday.
Comments by influential Republican Senator John Warner, meanwhile, fuelled perceptions that a new debate may be emerging on the direction of Iraq policy among members of the administration and political allies.
"The security situation is not one to be tolerated, and is not one that is helped by political inaction," Rice said on her trip to Baghdad this week, which started with the uncomfortable image of the US secretary of state being forced to circle the airport for 45 minutes because of a rocket attack.
Rice complimented Maliki on his "excellent" leadership and strength, but the steel in the US message was a call for the prime minister to bring together all factions in Baghdad to stop the killing.
She flew into Baghdad after Iraq's political leaders signed a pledge to halt sectarian violence, but there are already doubts in Washington that they will follow up on their promises.
Rice did not provide a deadline, but US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad indicated a week ago on CNN that the window for critical action to stem the carnage in Iraq may be down to two months.
Deputy White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also noted on Friday that Iraq was at a "crucial moment," while reiterating strong US public support for Maliki.
The comments by Warner, a World War II veteran who chairs the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, caused a stir, when he complained that Iraq was "drifting sideways" after returning from his own visit.
He warned the government did not seem to be pulling the "levers" of sovereignty.
"In two or three months, if this thing hasn't come to fruition and this level of violence is not under control, I think it's a responsibility of our government to determine: Is there a change of course we should take?" he said.
The administration hinted in recent weeks that its continuing support for the Maliki government, and the price it pays in blood and treasure on its behalf, is not a one-sided bargain.
"Iraq can count on our partnership, as long as the new government continues to make hard decisions necessary to advance a unified, democratic and peaceful Iraq," Bush said in an August speech.
What Washington might do if it decides Iraq's government is not making those "hard" choices is not clear.
"The US is obviously constantly looking at what we're doing and reviewing our options and our policies," said Rice, but she made clear that the US administration was not going to remove US support for the Iraqi government if it could not stand on its own feet.
Some observers have seen veiled US hints as the start of a public relations strategy that would provide a rationale for a drawdown of US troops.