WASHINGTON – President Bush publicly declared Wednesday his continuing support for embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, defending him against U.S. lawmakers calling for a no-confidence vote on his leadership.
The explicit statement of backing, delivered to the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., came after the White House heard criticism that Bush failed to mention the leader by name when asked on Tuesday whether al-Maliki should step down.
"Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him," Bush told the VFW. "It's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. That is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship."
Earlier Wednesday, al-Maliki lashed out at comments made by congressional critics, in particular, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who this week said the Iraqi parliament should choose another leader. Al-Maliki also complained that he wasn't getting the support he expected from Bush.
"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people," al-Maliki said at the end of a three-day trip to neighboring Syria.
"Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria," he said. "We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere."
Bush in his speech defended Iraq's political progress, a key point of contention for many U.S. lawmakers who this week reluctantly acknowledged the success of the U.S. troop surge, but complained about the slow pace of political reconciliation.
Bush said the government is distributing oil revenues across the provinces despite not having an oil revenue-sharing law, and the Iraqi parliament has passed 60 pieces of legislation.
"A free Iraq is not going to be perfect, a free Iraq will not make decisions as quickly as the country did under the dictatorship," Bush said. "Many are frustrated by the pace of progress in Iraq, and I can understand this."
Still, he said, despite the mistakes that have been made and problems encountered, "seeing the Iraqis through to a stable democracy" is critical to U.S. national security.
On Tuesday, Bush notably omitted an endorsement for al-Maliki while pointing to new successes in Iraq that have taken place since the U.S. ramped up the number of troops in Iraq earlier this year to try to pacify the country. Bush spoke in Quebec during a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"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.
Before Bush addressed the VFW, the White House set out to reframe the president's comment. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters that Bush was not trying to distance himself from al-Maliki.
"Prime Minister Maliki knows where the president stands," Johndroe said. "It appears that did not come through for whatever reason."
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has received increasing criticism in the U.S., especially from Democrats, over what critics say is his inability to bridge political gaps among the minority Shiites and Kurds and the majority Sunnis.
Democrats have tried but failed to pass legislation that would bring troops home from Iraq, and fought hard against Bush's plan to send five more combat brigades to Iraq earlier this year.
Levin, returning from a trip to Iraq with Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said Monday that he believed Maliki should step down. 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," Levin said.
Levin said the surge has "produced some credible and positive results," giving the parliament time for a political solution to be reached. Nevertheless, Iraq's slow progress toward political reconciliation means troops need to come home — the incentive Levin said Iraqis need to fix their own house.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also acknowledged some successes from the president's troop surge during a speech Monday to the VFW audience. She, too, said that is not enough.
"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," Clinton said.
In Kansas City, the president warned that pulling troops out of Iraq too soon would lead to the same kind of violence the U.S. witnessed in Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia after the fall of Saigon.
"One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields,'" he said.
"[Usama] bin Laden has declared that the war in Iraq is 'for you or us to win.' ... Iraq is one of the central fronts in this War on Terror. Iraq is a central front, it's a central front to the enemy that attacked us and wants to attack us again and it's a central front to the United States, and to withdraw without getting the job done would be devastating."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded to the remark by saying the comparison is unfair, because Bush misled the nation about the need to go to war in Iraq. Other Democrats issued statements that criticized Bush for making a comparison to Vietnam.
"As I have said since April of 2004, Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam. It is a quagmire. Our military has done its job and done it well, but cannot solve Iraq’s problems or end Iraq’s civil war," said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts., the first to use the term "quagmire" to describe the Iraq war.
"Invoking the tragedy of Vietnam to defend the failed policy in Iraq is as irresponsible as it is ignorant of the realities of both of those wars," said Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and Vietnam War vet.
"The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government time to take steps to ensure a political solution to the situation," Clinton said. "It has failed to do so. The White House's report in September wont change that. It is abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the sectarian fighting in Iraq. We need to stop refereeing the war, and start getting out now.
Separately, the president's own appointee to Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on Tuesday echoed frustration with the lack of action by al-Maliki government's on key legislative measures, but called for the surge force to remain in place for the time being.
"Progress on national level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned — to us, to Iraqis, to the Iraqi leadership itself," Crocker said. But he added that the Shiite prime minister was working "in the shadow of a huge national trauma."
Crocker is co-author of the upcoming report to Congress that is due on Sept. 15. He also said Tuesday that Washington's blueprint for reconciliation was insufficient to win back control of Iraq. Congressional benchmarks such as laws to share oil revenue and reform security services don't tell the whole story, he said.
Crocker, who will present the report with military commander Gen. David Petraeus, called Iraq's problems difficult but fixable, arguing for more time for his diplomacy and operations by the bolstered American military force.
"Failure to meet any of them [congressionally mandated benchmarks] does not mean the definitive failure of the state or the society," Crocker said. "Conversely, to make them all would not by any means mean that they've turned the corner and it's a sun-dappled upland from here on in with peace and harmony and background music. It's just a lot more complex than that."
While saying U.S. support was not a "blank check," Crocker said Washington would continue backing al-Maliki's government "as it makes serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation and deliver effective governance to the people of Iraq."
Crocker stressed that it's not just al-Maliki, but "the whole government that has to perform here."
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.