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.
Despite the administration's apparently coordinated moves to put public pressure on the Maliki government, Bush intends to use an address Wednesday, to a convention in Kansas City of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to make another attempt to rebuild U.S. public support for the Iraq effort by linking it to earlier American military campaigns in the Pacific -- in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The White House took the unusual step Tuesday of releasing advance excerpts of Bush's remarks.
"There are many differences between the wars we fought in the Far East and the war on terror we are fighting today. But one important similarity is that at their core, they are all ideological struggles," Bush plans to say, according to his prepared remarks. "Today, the names and places have changed, but the fundamental character of the struggle has not. Like our enemies in the past, the terrorists who wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places seek to spread a political vision of their own -- a harsh plan for life that crushes all freedom, tolerance, and dissent.
Crocker, the ambassador, said his report to Congress will address what he described as several key military successes but will state that maintaining security requires a cohesive national government. When the United States sent 30,000 additional troops to Iraq this year, Bush and Petraeus said the goal was to reduce violence and give Iraq's government time to focus on long-term political solutions.
American commanders have said military progress has taken place, especially in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where the level of sectarian violence has dropped dramatically as a result of alliances between the military and Sunni sheiks interested in driving out the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Crocker said military gains in Anbar underline the necessity of including civilians in security efforts, which the United States has done with increasing frequency. The creation of "concerned citizen" groups poses significant risks for American forces, who cannot be sure about the allegiances or long-term goals of the volunteer fighters. Still, Crocker said, the strategy mitigates the negative effects of the national police force, which is known for its corruption and is distrusted by many Iraqis.
"As you look at the fairly awful experiment with the national police so far, this notion of local policing may be strategically important," he said.
Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner used a surprise trip to Baghdad to call on European countries to help the United States repair Iraq. Kouchner's comments represent a major departure from former French president Jacques Chirac's stance on Iraq. Relations between France and the United States were severely damaged after Chirac led global opposition to the 2003 invasion.
Since his election in May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has sought to strengthen ties with the United States. Kouchner told a French radio station that Iraq's leaders are "expecting something" from the French government and that he planned to assist U.S. efforts.
"The Americans can't get this country out of difficulty all alone," Kouchner said.
Also Tuesday, a judge in Baghdad convened a trial of 15 former Iraqi military commanders accused of killing tens of thousands of Shiites in southern Iraq under Saddam Hussein's command. The men, including Hussein's cousin -- known as "Chemical Ali" -- are charged with "engaging in widespread or systematic attacks against a civilian population" during a Shiite rebellion at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.