Maliki Scolds His American Critics

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 23, 2007

BAGHDAD, Aug. 22 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday strongly rebuked American politicians for threatening to withdraw support from his government, suggesting while on a trip to Syria that he could "find friends elsewhere" if he was abandoned by the United States.

Facing widespread and growing American criticism that he has not pushed his government faster toward political reconciliation or engineered the passage of important legislation, Maliki defended his elected government as reflecting the will of the Iraqi people rather than the urgencies of presidential politics in the United States. He said the calls for his removal were "discourteous."

"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government," he said at a news conference, according to news service reports from Damascus. "It was elected by its people."

Maliki's self-defense came on another deadly day that underscored the heavy toll in lives the Iraq war continues to exact on Iraqis and Americans. A U.S. military Black Hawk helicopter crashed north of Baghdad, killing all 14 soldiers on board and contributing to the highest single-day death toll for Americans in seven months. In northern Iraq, a suicide truck bomber killed at least 20 people near a police station; one news agency put the death toll from that attack as high as 45.

With violence unrelenting, and an important American assessment on the progress of the current U.S. troop buildup less than a month away, the pressure on Iraqi leaders from American politicians and diplomats has become more intense. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, this week called Iraq's political progress disappointing and said American support for the current government was not a "blank check." Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for Maliki's outright removal, and President Bush, before reiterating his support for Maliki on Wednesday, had appeared to withhold that endorsement in a speech the day before.

"Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria," Maliki said. "We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere."

Iraqi politicians close to Maliki described the recent criticisms as an insult to the prime minister, but they did not believe it meant a major change in U.S. involvement in Iraq.

"Honestly, this is a war for the most part in Washington rather than Baghdad," said Bassam Ridha, an adviser to the prime minister. "Obviously there's an agenda here. With the 2008 election coming up," he said, Democrats "want to use Iraq as a failure."

"We worry about our own affairs in Iraq. We have enough problems," Ridha added. "American politicians do not make or break our life here."

Among the most pressing concerns for the Iraqi government is the decision by both Shiite and Sunni lawmakers and cabinet ministers to boycott the government, further paralyzing an already dysfunctional political system. Maliki's many critics used the tense exchange between Maliki and the Americans to push for a new prime minister.

"We are the ones under pressure to accept Maliki for a while," Alaa Makki, a prominent Sunni lawmaker, said in a telephone interview from Jordan. "The American side is not pressing on Maliki; on the contrary, they are supporting Maliki against the political will in Iraq."

Bush reiterated his support for Maliki on Wednesday, calling him a "good man with a difficult job," a day after he expressed frustration with the pace of political reconciliation among rival Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. His comments came as fresh encouragement to some of Maliki's supporters.

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