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Bush and U.S. ambassador extend faint praise for Maliki

Times Staff Writers

President Bush and his top envoy in Baghdad offered tepid endorsements of Iraq’s prime minister Tuesday, in comments suggesting a new distancing from the beleaguered Shiite Muslim political leader.

Bush, speaking at a summit meeting in Canada, said Nouri Maliki’s future was in the hands of the Iraqi people.

“Clearly, the Iraqi government has got to do more through its parliament to help heal the wounds of years of having -- having lived years under a tyrant,” Bush said at a news conference in the Quebec resort of Montebello as he concluded two days of meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

“People at the grass roots are sick and tired of the violence, sick and tired of the radicalism. They want a better life, and they’re beginning to reject the extremists. . . ,” Bush said, adding in a direct warning to Maliki, “The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people?”

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If it does not, he said, Iraqis “will replace the government.”

In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was downbeat in his assessment of Maliki’s ability to end sectarian warfare between the Shiites and Sunni Arabs. He called progress toward national reconciliation “extremely disappointing” and said Maliki and other members of his government needed to reach compromises to help quell the bloodshed.

“We do expect results, as do the Iraqi people, and our support is not a blank check,” Crocker told journalists.

The comments were markedly harsher than past official U.S. government assessments of Maliki, whose leadership is expected to figure prominently in a progress report that Crocker must deliver to Congress by Sept. 15. The envoy will be joined by the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has overseen a military escalation aimed at tamping down violence to help enable Maliki’s government to focus on political issues.

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The Bush administration is facing growing pressure from Congress to demonstrate political as well as military progress in Iraq. Maliki’s future has drawn increasing attention with the return of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, from a visit to Iraq, and his determination that it was time for Maliki to step down or be replaced.

Although it said that “there is some progress being made” in the military sphere, Bush’s assessment of Iraq’s convoluted and bitter political life was notable for its downbeat tenor.

Despite the addition since February of 28,500 U.S. troops, mainly in Baghdad, and what Crocker said was an overall decline in sectarian violence, the Shiite-led government has done little either on the legislative or social level to bring the Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority together. None of the laws that the White House considers key to ending sectarian violence has been enacted. Basic services such as water and electricity are spotty at best. The country’s educated middle class is fleeing or being killed off.

Since April, Maliki’s government has been beset by walkouts and boycotts by various political blocs, some of which accuse his administration of being driven by sectarian interests. The most crippling walkout has involved Sunni lawmakers, whose absence means that one of Iraq’s major population groups is unrepresented.

Without strong U.S. backing, Maliki would be hard-pressed to hold his 15-month-old government together in the face of opposition from lawmakers and from a public worn down by violence and other hardships that have followed the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. Crocker noted some successes, such as the trend toward local policing in many communities by groups working in cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi government forces, and the decision by tribal leaders in Al Anbar province to turn against Sunni-led insurgents.

“With respect to Anbar, it’s not just that violence has diminished. It has dropped right off the map,” he said, referring to the vast desert region west of Baghdad that once was a center of anti-U.S. forces.

Crocker also praised Maliki for holding talks last week with Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders aimed at breaking the political logjam. “If the process is going on, that in itself I find encouraging,” Crocker said of the meetings. Crocker’s comments, though, were downbeat overall and included harsh criticisms of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police and which critics say is riddled with Shiite militia members who engage in sectarian killings. Crocker called the national police “fairly awful” and said the ministry “needs significant work.”

As for Maliki’s future, Crocker echoed Bush in saying democracy would determine his fate. “If governments don’t perform at a certain point . . . you’re going to see change.”

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As Crocker spoke, 15 members of Saddam Hussein’s regime went on trial in Baghdad, accused in the deaths of thousands of Shiites after a 1991 uprising. The trial is the third conducted by the Iraqi High Tribunal, which was created to handle crimes of the Hussein era and has condemned defendants including Hussein to death.

Remains of some victims were discovered in mass graves uncovered after Hussein’s ouster. In the southern city of Basra, graves containing the remains of 28 more apparent victims have been discovered in recent days, police said Tuesday.

In Muthanna province, where the governor was killed by a roadside bomb Monday, Police Chief Kadhim Abu Alhail announced that suspects had been apprehended. Alhail said they were loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has denied involvement in the killing, the second of a Shiite governor in the south in little more than a week.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

Susman reported from Baghdad and Gerstenzang from Montebello. Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Baghdad and special correspondent Maha Khateeb in Hillah, Iraq, contributed to this report.


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