Iraqi leader gets cool U.S. backing

BAGHDAD — BAGHDAD -- President Bush and his top envoy in Baghdad offered tepid endorsements of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday in comments suggesting a new distancing from the beleaguered Shiite political leader.

Bush, speaking in Montebello, Quebec, said al-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," said Bush, at a news conference concluding 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 al-Maliki: "The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people?" If it does not, he said, Iraqis "will replace the government."


In Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was downbeat in his assessment of al-Maliki's ability to end sectarian warfare between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. He called progress toward national reconciliation "extremely disappointing" and said al-Maliki and his government needed to reach compromises that might help quell the bloodshed.

"We do expect results, as do the Iraqi people, and our support is not a blank check," Crocker told journalists in the Iraqi capital. "We need to see results."

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

The Bush administration is facing pressure from Congress to demonstrate political and military progress in Iraq, and the comments yesterday suggested a ratcheting up of pressure on al-Maliki to produce.

The issue of al-Maliki's future has drawn attention with the return of Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, from a visit to Iraq. Levin said it was time for al-Maliki to step down or be replaced.

While saying that in the military sphere "there is some progress being made," Bush's assessment of Iraq's convoluted and bitter political life was notable for its downbeat tenor less than a month before the report to Congress.

Parliament, which is on a monthlong break, reconvenes Sept. 4, and al-Maliki will face pressure to draw back Sunni lawmakers to at least present the image of a cohesive government for Crocker's report.

Crocker praised al-Maliki for holding talks last week with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders aimed at breaking the political logjam. "If the process is going on, that in itself I find encouraging," he said.


The overall tone of his comments, though, was downbeat and included harsh criticisms of the Ministry of Interior, 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 al-Maliki's future, Crocker echoed Bush. "If governments don't perform at a certain point ... you're going to see change."

For his part, al-Maliki was urged on the second day of a visit to neighboring Syria yesterday to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Syrian Prime Minister Naji Ottri told his Iraqi counterpart that the American presence in the Middle East "brought radical forces and inflamed the cycle of violence."

Meanwhile, one week after a series of truck bombs hit a poor rural area near the Syrian border, the known casualty toll has soared to more than 500 dead and 1,500 wounded, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, making it the bloodiest coordinated attack since the American-led invasion in 2003.

The toll may yet rise, said the society's director, Dr. Said Hakki.

Tina Susman and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.