Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki warned the Bush administration after talks with longtime U.S. adversaries in Syria on Wednesday that Iraq “can find friends elsewhere” if Washington doesn’t like how he runs his country.
Maliki’s defiant rhetoric followed criticism from the White House and congressional leaders in recent days of his efforts to unite his Cabinet and improve stability, which would permit a reduction in the number of U.S. troops here.
Together with his recent overtures to Iran and Syria, Maliki’s words raised questions about his diplomatic priorities and sensitivity to U.S. concerns about two neighboring countries Washington accuses of supporting terrorism.
“No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people,” Maliki said at a news conference in Damascus, the Syrian capital, where he is on a three-day visit. “Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution, and can find friends elsewhere.”
Maliki said the criticism was motivated by U.S. electoral politics.
In a speech Wednesday to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., President Bush sought to cast the Iraq war in historical terms. When the U.S. persevered, as it did in the war against Japan and in the Korean conflict, Bush said, the result was democracy and prosperity. But when it withdrew, as it did in Vietnam, he said, it led to catastrophic violence.
“Prevailing in this struggle is essential to our future as a nation,” he said.
Analysts said they doubted that the criticism of Maliki indicated that Washington was engaged in a serious effort to remove him because that would lead to more months of political wrangling in Baghdad. More likely, they said, the administration was preparing the American public for a disappointing report next month on progress in Iraq.
Washington has severely strained relations with Syria and Iran -- where Maliki paid an official visit this month. While U.S. officials have put a positive spin on his Syria trip as a necessary nurturing of regional relations, Washington has accused Damascus of looking the other way as weapons and militants flooded across the border into Iraq.
Syrian and Iranian leaders used Maliki’s visits to demand that Iraq set a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw, and to blame the American presence here for drawing in foreign militants and destabilizing the region.
The summits also involved what all participants described as cordial discussion about border security, strengthening regional alliances and economic interests.
Maliki’s office reported from Syria that the two sides considered his visit “successful and reflective of their brotherly and historical relationship,” and described his talks with Syrian leaders as “frank and positive.”
During Maliki’s Aug. 8-9 visit to Tehran, he and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared before cameras holding hands and pledging joint efforts to fight terrorism.
U.S. political and military leaders accuse Iran of arming and training Shiite Muslim militias that have been terrorizing Sunni Arabs, as well as attacking U.S. troops and, at times, each other. Sectarian violence has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions.
The Pentagon has accused Iran of providing Iraqi insurgents with armor-piercing munitions that can penetrate Humvees and kill or wound U.S. soldiers.
Maliki’s opponents complained about his focus on foreign policy at a time when vital legislation languishes and sectarian differences have set Cabinet ministers against each other.
Bush and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, separately observed Tuesday that Maliki could be ousted by parliament if Iraqis lose faith in his leadership. His Cabinet has been gutted by defections and boycotts. Sectarian power plays have prevented the government and parliament from passing any of the vital laws the U.S. has demanded as evidence of progress toward self-reliance.
If the Iraqi government doesn’t respond to the demands of the Iraqi people, Bush said Tuesday, “they will replace the government.”
The White House appeared to be stepping back from that message Wednesday. Bush praised Maliki as “a good guy” with a tough job who deserved U.S. backing.
Bush made that observation because he felt his comments Tuesday had been “misreported,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. Johndroe said the Iraqi prime minister “knows we’re frustrated” but also that Bush continues to support him.
Crocker had told journalists here Tuesday that he found Maliki’s leadership “extremely disappointing,” and two senior U.S. senators, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican John W. Warner of Virginia, called for Maliki to step down. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Wednesday that the Iraqi parliament should find a “less divisive and more unifying figure.”
The harsh assessments of Maliki were made just weeks before Crocker and the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, are to address Congress on the results of a U.S. troop buildup intended to shore up security so the Iraqi government could get to work running the country.
Analysts contend that Washington has little choice but to stick with Maliki.
“Washington is divided over what approach to take, with some advocating a hard line and others pushing for diplomacy,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
He said he doubted that Bush’s criticism of Maliki was inspired by the prospect of closer ties between Iraq and its neighbors. More likely, he said, the administration was preparing Americans for a disappointing assessment of the Iraqi government’s performance when Crocker and Petraeus report to Congress in mid-September.
“Washington is frustrated with Maliki, but the problem is rooted in the absence of a credible political framework to build a peace process around. As a result, we are entering a period of passing the blame,” said Vali Nasr, a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He said he doubted Washington was signaling a desire to see Maliki replaced. To bring in a new leader would involve months of wrangling, potential collapse of the governing coalition and further empowerment of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and other forces outside the government, Nasr said.
“The choice is not necessarily between Maliki and something better, but Maliki and something worse,” he said.
A majority of the 275-seat parliament would be needed to force Maliki from office, and unless the main Shiite bloc, to which he belongs, and the Kurdish parties turn on him, his opponents lack the votes to do that.
If Maliki were to resign or be ousted, the constitution requires that the entire Cabinet be dissolved. That would open a fresh competition for key ministries.
Maliki has been critical of Iran and Syria in the past, suggesting that they bear some responsibility for the violence gripping Iraq. His recent travels appear to indicate a desire to make alliances that will solidify Shiite power and perhaps his own.
That is unsettling for other factions in Iraq’s already dysfunctional coalition.
“Iran and Syria have their own agendas that they want to apply in Iraq in the current situation,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a parliament member in the Tawafiq alliance, a Sunni Arab group. “Maliki is losing his balance in maintaining internal partners, so he is looking to find others outside.”
Jabouri said the U.S. criticism was essentially a “green light” to politicians to replace Maliki.
But a member of parliament with the dominant Shiite bloc, Ridha Jawad Taqi, said debate over the wisdom of forging close ties to Iran was taking place among Iraqis as well, and pointed to that as a sign of democracy taking root.
Though Baghdad depends on Washington for its security, Maliki has more to gain in strengthening Shiite power in Iraq by aligning with Iran and creating a political bulwark against the Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Kansas City, Borzou Daragahi in Iraqi Kurdistan and Tina Susman and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.