BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Nightmarish political realities in Baghdad are prompting American officials to curb their vision for democracy in Iraq. Instead, the officials now say they are willing to settle for a government that functions and can bring security.
A workable democratic and sovereign government in Iraq was one of the Bush administration's stated goals of the war.
But for the first time, exasperated front-line U.S. generals talk openly of non-democratic governmental alternatives, and while the two top U.S. officials in Iraq still talk about preserving the country's nascent democratic institutions, they say their ambitions aren't as "lofty" as they once had been.
"Democratic institutions are not necessarily the way ahead in the long-term future," said Brig. Gen. John "Mick" Bednarek, part of Task Force Lightning in Diyala province, one of the war's major battlegrounds.
The comments reflect a practicality common among Western diplomats and officials trying to win hearts and minds in the Middle East and other non-Western countries where democracy isn't a tradition.
The failure of Iraq to emerge from widespread instability is a bitter pill for the United States, which optimistically toppled the Saddam Hussein regime more than four years ago. Millions of Iraqis went to the polls to cast ballots, something that generated great promise for the establishment of a democratic system.
But Iraqi institutions, from the infrastructure to the national government, are widely regarded as ineffective in the fifth year of the war.U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, declined to be interviewed for this story, but they issued a joint statement to CNN that reiterated that the country's "fundamental democratic framework is in place" and that "the development of democratic institutions is being encouraged."
And, they said, they are helping Iraqi political leaders find ways "to share power and achieve legislative progress." But Crocker and Petraeus conceded they are "now engaged in pursuing less lofty and ambitious goals than was the case at the outset."
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of Task Force Lightning, also reflected a less lofty American goal for Iraq's future.
"I would describe it as leaving an effective government behind that can provide services to its people, and security. It needs to be an effective and functioning government that is really a partner with the United States and the rest of the world in this fight against the terrorists," said Mixon, who will not be perturbed if such goals are reached without democracy.
"Well, see that all over the Middle East," he said, stating that democracy is merely an option, that Iraqis are free to choose or reject. "But that is the $50,000 question. ... What will this government look like? Will it be a democracy? Will it not?" he asked. Soldiers, he said, are fighting for security, a goal Mixon described as "core to my mission."
But security is far from complete in Iraq, where the government seems dysfunctional and paralyzed.
Seventeen of the 37 Iraqi Cabinet ministers either boycott or don't attend Cabinet meetings. Parliament, now on a much-criticized month-long summer break, has yet to pass key legislation in the areas of energy resource sharing and the future roles of former members of Hussein's Baath Party. U.S. officials, including President Bush, have said there is frustration with efforts by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to promote political reconciliation.
The government is unable to supply regular electricity and at times running water in the capital. The health care system is run by one Iranian-backed militia and the national police are dominated by another. Death squads terrorize Sunni neighborhoods.
Sectarian cleansing is pushing people into segregated enclaves, protected by Shiite or U.S.-backed Sunni militias, and spurring the flight of thousands to neighboring countries.
Thousands of innocents are dying violently every month in cities and villages across the country.
Iraqi government officials concede things aren't working, but they say that's because the United States doesn't allow Iraq to really control its own destiny.
While the Iraqi government commands its own troops, it cannot send them into battle without U.S. agreement. Iraqi Special Forces answer only to U.S. officers.
"We don't have full sovereignty," said Hadi al-Amri, the chairman of parliament's Defense and Security Committee. "We don't have sovereignty over our troops, we don't have sovereignty over our provinces. We admit it."
And because of the very real prospect of Iranian infiltration, the government doesn't fund or control its own intelligence service. It's paid for and run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Abdul Qarim al-Enzi, director of the parliamentary ethics committee, asks whether it is "reasonable for a country given sovereignty by the international community to have a chief of intelligence appointed by another country."
One senior U.S. official in Baghdad told CNN that "any country with 160,000 foreigners fighting for it sacrifices some sovereignty."The U.S. government has long cautioned that a fully functioning democracy would be slow to emerge in Iraq. But with key U.S. senators calling for al-Maliki's removal, some senior U.S. military commanders even suggest privately the entire Iraqi government must be removed by "constitutional or non-constitutional" means and replaced with a stable, secure, but not necessarily democratic entity.