WASHINGTON – It is up to the Iraqi parliament and public to determine the fate of the government led by Nouri al-Maliki, President Bush said Tuesday, responding to calls by war critics who now acknowledge the military surge in Iraq is working but say the prime minister must go.
Speaking at a North American summit in Quebec with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Bush said the Iraqi parliament has not completed key benchmarks set out by the U.S. Congress, but has passed 60 pieces of legislation.
He added that the public has already begun "to reject the extremists" who are daily trying to undo progress by U.S. troops there, and said a "bottom-up reconciliation" is taking place.
"The fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people," the president said, without mentioning al-Maliki by name. "And if the government doesn't ... respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government. That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians.
"The Iraqis will decide," Bush added. "They have decided they want a constitution. They have elected members to their parliament and they will make the decisions just like democracies do."
Bush's remarks came as several Democratic lawmakers have begrudgingly begun to acknowledge the U.S. troop surge has had positive results. At the same time, they point to failure of the government to pass an oil revenue-sharing law or groundwork for provincial elections.
Sens. Carl Levin and John Warner, the Democratic and Republican heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned Monday that unless a political solution is reached soon, "We may be inadvertently helping to create another militia which will have to be dealt with in the future."
Speaking in a conference call from Tel Aviv, Levin said the Iraqi parliament should vote no confidence in the al-Maliki government because of its sectarian nature and leadership.
"The Maliki government is non-functional," said Levin of Michigan.
Levin acknowledged that the surge has "produced some credible and positive results," giving the parliament time for a political solution to be reached.
Given the lack of settlement on a political solution, however, Levin said that U.S. troops should start coming home. He also repeated an oft-used line about the fact that the United States must make the Iraqis take more responsibility by pulling out troops, because if the U.S. doesn't, the Iraqis would keep Americans there forever.
The senators said that during their visit to Iraq last week, they told Iraqi leaders of American impatience with the lack of political progress, and "impressed upon them that time has run out in that regard."
On Monday, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton appeared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars and added her voice to the mix of those who say the U.S. military's troop surge is having positive results.
Clinton tempered her remarks to the annual convention of the VFW with an admonition for the Iraqi government, which she described as being "on vacation" while American troops battle in the middle of a sectarian war.
Clinton, a 2008 presidential candidate, noted that progress is being made militarily in Iraq because of the surge, but that American troops alone cannot impose a solution to Iraq's myriad internal problems.
"Having been there, having studied it and having seen the heroism and the accomplishments of our troops, I do not believe that we alone can impose a military solution and I do not think the Iraqis are ready to do what they have to do for themselves," she said in a speech in Kansas City, Mo. "Therefore, I think it is unacceptable for our troops to be caught in the crossfire of a sectarian civil war while the Iraqi government is on vacation."
On Tuesday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Fred Thompson countered Clinton's remarks by criticizing war critics who call for troop withdrawal while at the same time speaking about military successes in Iraq.
Thompson said that despite the impending report by Gen. David Petraeus, head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, that says definite progress is being made in Iraq, some senators want to leave the country before the government is stable.
"Even before General Petraeus has an opportunity to give his report, the big squabble in the Congress still is not, how do we achieve success there, but what are the terms of our defeat," said the former Tennessee senator.
"I'm somewhat reminded, when I look to Congress, of that scene — that famous scene in Iwo Jima, where those brave people are struggling, several of them around, you know, trying to plant the flag. Except this time, it's not an American flag, it's a white flag," he said. "History tells us ... that the vision among ourselves giving off the appearance of weakness does not achieve peace but makes things more dangerous, makes conflicts more likely, than if we had not given off such appearances."
Sen. John McCain, who also spoke to the VFW, argued that ending the campaign in Iraq would be a colossal mistake.
"As long as we have a chance to succeed, we must try to succeed," he said Monday. "I don't think our country needs to take a loss ... and I still think it's a winnable war."
McCain later acknowledged to reporters that his position is not the most popular. The latest survey taken shows Congress' approval rating at its lowest — 18 percent — in Gallup poll history, in part because of its inability to resolve the Iraq issue.
McCain's campaign has also personally suffered, but he has repeatedly stated that he'd rather lose the presidential campaign than lose the war.
"We're starting to succeed, and I think we have seen some shift in public opinion," he said. "But as I said, I have no choice [even] if nobody applauded."
Another presidential contender and war critic Sen. Barack Obama has also remained consistently critical about the war, and told the VFW audience that the U.S. military should never have been in Iraq in the first place.
"All of our top military commanders recognize that there is no military solution in Iraq," Obama said. "That is why I have pushed for a careful and responsible redeployment of troops engaged in combat operations out of Iraq, joined with direct and sustained diplomacy in the region."
For its part, the White House has not swayed from its position that the U.S. must complete the mission — achieving a sustainable and peaceful Iraq — before troops can withdraw. On Monday, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters traveling with Bush that they haven't yet given up on al-Maliki and the government's attempts at reaching political solutions to a variety of issues dividing the sectarian parties.
"Iraqi leaders are meeting now to reach a political accommodation among the various parties. We urge them to come together, reach agreements and show the Iraqi people and the rest of the world their determination to create a stable and prosperous Iraq," Johndroe said. "We believe that Prime Minister Maliki and the Presidency Council will be able to get this important work done."
On Tuesday, Bush said he is concerned that success in Iraq is being measured through the lens of personal opinions held by those watching from afar.
"If you don't believe it's in American interests to be there, you won't find any political reconciliation that is — you know, that is worth defending," the president said. "If you do think it's in our interests, our security interests, then you'll be able to see political reconciliation taking place — some at the top and some at the bottom."
Bush added that he does not want to prejudge the September benchmark report expected to be delivered to Capitol Hill by Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two will vet the results in open and closed hearings most likely on Sept. 11 or 12.
Even with expectations that the two will acknowledge a lack of progress on the political benchmarks set by Congress, some of the two dozen lawmakers now traveling in Iraq may reconsider their support for a quick retreat.
"If I didn’t think there was some chance of a reasonable outcome by staying a little longer, I would be calling for immediate withdrawal," Rep. Brian Baird told The Columbian newspaper in his Washington state district. "The party leadership may be in a different place than I am right now."
Adding to that, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to urge them to lift the cap on the number of congressional members taking trips to Iraq. He said more fact-finding missions will enable lawmakers to see what's truly happening on the ground.
"Most of us find that members who have been there not only have more knowledge but less partisanship. Meeting the troops, seeing the theater and getting a front-line view inspires Democrats and Republicans alike. With the tremendous philosophical divisions we have in Congress and in America, opening up access would be healthy to the debate and decisions ahead," said Kingston.
FOX News' Steve Brown and Trish Turner contributed to this report.