Bush Turns Up Heat on Maliki

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By Michael A. Fletcher and Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

MONTEBELLO, Quebec, Aug. 21 -- President Bush pointedly declined Tuesday to offer a public endorsement of embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, expressing his disappointment at the lack of political progress in Iraq and saying that widespread popular frustration could lead Iraqis to replace their government.

"The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people?" Bush said. Stopping short of directly endorsing Maliki, as he has on several previous occasions, Bush continued, "If the government doesn't respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government."

In apparent response to congressional calls for a change of leadership in Iraq, Bush added, "That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians."

White House aides said later that Bush's comments did not mean he was withdrawing support from Maliki but were simply a statement of reality -- that Iraqis were growing frustrated and that under the country's new democratic system, the people could decide to replace the current government with a more capable one. But the president's tough words -- together with similar strong statements from the top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad -- suggested that the administration's patience with the current leadership is wearing thin.

Still, Bush intends to use a speech Wednesday to continue making the case for remaining in Iraq, despite the frustrations.

Support for Maliki also appears to be eroding on Capitol Hill. On Monday, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Iraqi parliament to oust Maliki's government and replace it with one that is more unifying, if Maliki cannot forge a political accommodation with rival factions soon.

Bush's remarks came a few hours after the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, made similar comments in Baghdad, calling the Iraqi government's political progress "extremely disappointing" and telling reporters that stabilizing the country would require reconciliation among rival factions.

"There's not a strong sense anywhere, really, of the central government being present and active in making conditions in Iraq better," Crocker said at a news briefing three weeks before he and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, are scheduled to present a progress report to Congress. "They've got to do more of that."

While continuing to express support for Maliki, Crocker stepped up his public pressure on the embattled prime minister, who has lost nearly half the members of his cabinet to political boycotts and resignations. U.S. support is "not a blank check," Crocker said, adding that Maliki's government must be more effective if it is to stay in power.

"This is an open society, a democratic society, and if governments don't perform, at a certain point I think you're going to see a new government," he said, in comments echoed by Bush in Canada.

The administration wants Maliki to find some accommodation with his political rivals, particularly the Sunnis, who feel disenfranchised by his Shiite-led government. It also wants him to make good on promises to disarm Shiite militias and show leadership on issues such as allowing former members of deposed president Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath Party back into government jobs. Yet it is unclear whether Maliki has the capacity -- or the will -- to take such politically difficult steps.

Last month, a Bush administration report concluded that the Iraqi government had not made satisfactory progress on any of those key political issues, which also include a new law for sharing oil revenue and a schedule for provincial elections. There has been no further progress since that report, and the Iraqi parliament, which must pass the legislation implementing the reforms, is on vacation for August.


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