`Don't worry,' Bush tells Iraqi premier

Iraqi leader said he feared U.S. would drop support

October 17, 2006|By Paul Richter and Borzou Daragahi | Paul Richter and Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Iraq's prime minister, concerned that the United States might be growing impatient with his government and considering a change in course, sought reassurance from President Bush yesterday that he intends to stick by his commitment to Iraq's government.

During a 15-minute morning phone call, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Bush he was concerned by reports that U.S. officials would drop their support for his government if it did not show progress within two months, said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Al-Maliki said that calls for such a deadline, and proposals for a three-way partition of Iraq, "were undermining his government," Snow said.

But while al-Maliki "was concerned," Bush told him, "Don't worry," Snow told reporters.

The exchange came at a time of growing international pressure for Iraq's government to show progress, and intensifying demands in the United States for a change in the American approach to the country. A congressionally chartered panel co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III is preparing to recommend a new direction, amid calls by prominent Republican lawmakers for a rethinking.

Snow said that Bush, who initiated the phone call, "underscored his commitment to a democratically elected government of Iraq, encouraging the prime minister to ignore rumors that the United States government was seeking to impose a timeline on the Maliki government." He insisted that "there is no timeline," though he pointed out that Bush himself said last week that the U.S. approach must change and adapt as conditions change.

Senator's comments

Snow speculated that al-Maliki might have been concerned about the deadline because of comments this month by Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the United States might have to consider a change in direction if the Iraqi government was unable to restore order after two or three months.

After a recent visit to Iraq, Warner said he feared that the country was "drifting sideways."

Warner is one of a number of lawmakers and others who have turned pessimistic about the direction of the country after visiting Baghdad and conferring with Iraqi leaders and U.S. civilian and military officials. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, declared that the government needed to show progress within a few months.

As the outlook has appeared to darken, lawmakers and foreign policy experts have been offering a growing variety of proposals for taking a new approach. These include radically decentralizing the government, holding an international conference including Iran and Syria to chart Iraq's future and even moving large groups of Iraqis from one part of the country to another to make partition easier.

U.S. officials have praised al-Maliki since the relatively unknown Shiite leader was installed in April to head Iraq's first permanent democratic government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed American support during a visit to Baghdad two weeks ago.

At the same time, U.S officials have called for the Iraqi government to increase the pace of its efforts to improve security, foster reconciliation between the major ethnic and religious groups, and resolve sensitive issues of oil resources and federalism.

Privately, some officials have expressed impatience with al-Maliki, and with the unwillingness of the Iraqi leadership generally to resolve their disputes. But they insist that despite the yearnings of some officials for a more effective government, the U.S. policy remains to try to bolster the current leadership.

Spate of violence

Bush administration officials acknowledge they are deeply troubled by a recent spasm of violence in Iraq. In the past four days, at least 80 people have died in fighting between Shiite and Sunni towns flanking the Tigris River north of Baghdad.

Asked if Bush had "total confidence" in al-Maliki's government, Snow said the president "believes the prime minister is doing everything in his power" to stem the country's raging violence, yet "there has to be more to be done. The violence levels are absolutely unacceptable."

Paul Richter and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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