DAMASCUS, Syria – Iraq's prime minister lashed out Wednesday at U.S. criticism, saying no one has the right to impose timetables on his elected government and that his country "can find friends elsewhere."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the U.S. presidential campaign for the recent tough words about his government, from President Bush and from other U.S. politicians.
Bush on Tuesday said he was frustrated with Iraqi leaders' inability to bridge political divisions. But he added that only the Iraqi people can decide whether to sideline al-Maliki.
"Clearly, the Iraqi government's got to do more," Bush said. "I think there's a certain level of frustration with the leadership in general, inability to work — come together to get, for example, an oil revenue law passed or provincial elections."
Bush on Wednesday will strongly reiterate his support for al-Maliki, wary of how his comments the day before about the Iraqi leader had widely been interpreted. Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president's speech in Canada on Tuesday was not intended to be a withdrawal of support for al-Maliki. As a result of media coverage, Bush will insert a direct line of support for al-Maliki in his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference Wednesday.
"Prime Minister Maliki knows where the president stands," Johndroe said before Bush's speech.
Johndroe said that after Bush's comments in Canada, the White House had tried to make clear Bush was not distancing himself from al-Maliki.
"It appears that did not come through for whatever reason," Johndroe said.
Al-Maliki, on a trip to Syria, reacted harshly when asked about the earlier comments from U.S. officials.
"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people," he said at a news conference in Damascus at the end of the three-day visit to Syria.
"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," al-Maliki said.
Without naming any American official, al-Maliki said some of the criticism of him and his government had been "discourteous."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Monday that al-Maliki, a Shiite, should be ousted and replaced with a less sectarian leader.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said he was disappointed and frustrated by the lack of political progress by al-Maliki's government. Crocker said the Iraqis themselves and Iraqi leaders were also frustrated.
The harsh exchanges erupted just a few weeks before Crocker and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, are to report to Congress on military and political progress in Iraq.
The two are expected to point to some signs of military progress in Iraq. But the political situation in Iraq remains fractured, with wide distrust between Shiite and Sunni factions and no progress by al-Maliki's government on key issues.
Bush's statement on Tuesday was a marked change in tone from his endorsement of al-Maliki in November 2006 at a meeting in Jordan as "the right guy for Iraq."
In recent months, Bush has continually prodded al-Maliki to do more to forge political reconciliation before the temporary U.S. military buildup ends. But his statements Tuesday were the sharpest he has made about whether the Iraqi prime minister will survive.
"The fundamental question is, Will the government respond to the demands of the people?" Bush said. "And, if the government doesn't demand — or 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."
Al-Maliki has faced numerous defections from his ruling coalition in recent months. Nevertheless, it is unclear that any group has the political pull to push him aside and put in place a new government.
Ousting al-Maliki would require a majority vote in the 275-member Iraqi parliament. As long as the Kurdish parties and the main Shiite bloc stand beside al-Maliki, his opponents lack the votes to do that.
Any change in leadership also would also greatly complicate U.S. military efforts to stabilize the country, especially if the change resulted in the government falling and negotiations to create a new government. The process of forming al-Maliki's government took months of wrangling as the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias gathered strength and influence.