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Tipping Point for War's Supporters?

Inside the White House, officials were glum, trying just to get through the election in hopes that after the rhetoric fades there might be a chance for both parties to fashion a new approach. "I'm not disparaging new ideas; I'm welcoming new ideas," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview. But, he noted, "no one I know has come up with a silver bullet."

Hadley described the administration's three top priorities: a political agreement among Iraqi sects, enhanced security with Iraqis taking more of the lead and greater international support. "There's an opportunity to try to figure out how to do better," he said. "A lot of it is not a conception issue; it's an execution issue. It's an execution issue for the American government, and it's an execution issue for the Iraqi government."

All the while, in the background was the drumbeat of U.S. deaths in Iraq, with October's toll of 98 so far the worst in a month since January 2005. Iraqi forces have recently paid an even heavier price, with 300 troops dying during the month of Ramadan, the U.S. military said.

A series of grim events on the ground in Iraq deepened fears that the nation is sliding closer to a full-blown civil war. A battle between two towns -- one Shiite, one Sunni -- on opposite banks of the Tigris River earlier in the month epitomized the factors tearing the country apart. A vengeance killing blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents based in the farm hamlet of Duluiyah prompted a killing spree targeting Sunnis across the river in the predominantly Shiite city of Balad. The U.S. military and residents of both Duluiyah and Balad accused the towns' police of taking part in the killings.

Looking for protection, Shiites in Balad turned not to their elected government or to the U.S. military but to Shiite militias, summoning them from Baghdad. By the time the killing ebbed three days later, at least 80 people were dead. Balad was all but empty of Sunni families, which had lived among Shiites for generations.

The militias blamed in many of the Sunni deaths belong to two Shiite religious parties that dominate Iraq's five-month-old government. Maliki, a Shiite, has used his position to block U.S. efforts to crack down on militias. Last week he denounced a U.S.-backed Iraqi raid into Sadr City seeking the most notorious of the death-squad leaders. U.S. officials had not notified Maliki before the raid.

The White House said reports of a rift were overblown, but privately U.S. officials wondered about the Maliki government's competence. Maliki's comments to Reuters last week underscored a growing divide. "If anyone is responsible for the poor security situation in Iraq," he said, "it is the coalition."

Looming over this deteriorating situation is the fact that, despite the training of 310,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers -- close to the number once thought necessary to ensure security -- those new forces have not brought calm to the capital and the area around it.

Experts disagree whether the past month represents the beginning of the end of the U.S. involvement in Iraq. But there was little question among them about whether it will be remembered as a major turning point. "We are at a real crossroads," said Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services panel. "Personally," said James Burk, a military expert at Texas A&M University, "I think the 'experiment' . . . is over."

But Dov S. Zakheim, who was a senior Pentagon official under Rumsfeld, said he thinks this is simply the beginning of a new phase in the U.S. effort in Iraq.

"Everyone knows that if we leave Iraq, not only will that country have little hope of regaining any form of stability, we will likely destabilize the entire region," he said. So the current turmoil reflects the "recognition in all policy circles that we are about to enter a new phase."

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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