Lindsey Graham's Iraq Deadline

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Alex Wong / Getty / Meet the Press

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a pivotal Republican vote in the U.S. Senate on Iraq policy, is willing to give the government of Iraq until Christmas to get its act together.

But not much more.

Graham told TIME Wednesday that the Iraqi leaders have 90 days to start resolving their political differences with real legislative agreements or face a change in strategy by the U.S. "If they can't do it in 90 days," he said, "it means the major players don't want to."

Graham, who has been to Iraq nearly a dozen times, including spending 11 days in August on duty as a reserve Air Force officer, pointed out that Washington has spent the last few weeks debating Iraq policy and emerged with a commitment to continuing the surge through the spring. That commitment, he said, is the green light for the Iraqis to finally take action on resolving their disagreements.

But Graham, who is up for re-election in 2008, said he will not wait forever. "If they can't pull it together in the next 90 days," he said, "I don't think they are ever gonna do it." He followed that prediction with a promise: "If they don't deliver in 90 days, I will openly say the chances for political reconciliation are remote."

Graham said he believed the "conditions are ripe" for political deals between factions on de-Baathification, which would ease the way for participation of Sunni tribes in local Iraqi politics, and on the holding of local elections, which would allow Sunnis to take a greater role in the Shia-dominated country.

Graham first hinted at a 90-day clock in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee September 19. In his comments before that panel, he merely predicted the world would see progress by Baghdad in the next 90 days.

In his conversation with TIME, he held out a stick in the event that progress does not materialize. Said Graham: "We've won the day here politically, to give them the infrastructure they need to do this. It's been missing up until now. I am vocally saying it's up to [the Iraqis] to deliver. We've done our part."

Though he would not elaborate on what kind of plan he would push if the Iraqis fail to meet the deadline, Graham did say a change in strategy would be warranted. "If they can't do it by the end of the year," he said, "how do you justify a continued presence?"

In response to Graham's comments, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Wednesday, "The President urged the Iraqi government to make progress on the political front in his meeting with Maliki yesterday. The President has also said that Petraeus and Crocker will report back in March, when they will be able to make a further assessment."