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Losing U.S. support could make al-Maliki look elsewhere

  • Story Highlights
  • Calls have grown in U.S. government for Iraqi leader al-Maliki to step aside
  • Bush reiterated support for al-Maliki, expresses frustration with pace of reform
  • Iraqi leader faces boycott from both Sunni and Shiia members of government
  • Al-Maliki has fired back at critics in the United States
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It is vogue in Washington to place blame for the chaos in Iraq squarely at that the feet of its leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In recent days calls have grown louder in many corners of the U.S. government for al-Maliki to step down.

Al-Maliki, left, made his first visit to Syria earlier this week and met with President Bashar al-Assad.

As violence in Iraq continues and next month's assessment of the U.S. troop surge approaches, the U.S. has stepped up pressure on al-Maliki for failing to nudge his factious government toward political reconciliation, including passing legislation distributing Iraq's oil wealth and amending the constitution.

President Bush this week called al-Maliki a "good man with a difficult job," but also expressed frustration at the snail's pace of political reconciliation among Sunni and Shiia factions in Iraq. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, too, said political progress in Iraq has been disappointing.

But members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, aren't engaging in such diplomatic niceties. The Chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, called for al-Maliki's ouster.

The assault comes on the heels of a boycott against al-Maliki by both Sunni and Shiia lawmakers and ministers in his cabinet, which could further paralyze the government.

Al-Maliki's critics following the debate in Washington are using that criticism it as ammunition to call for a new prime minister. One of their strongest weapons came this week when Crocker warned that American support for the al-Maliki government did not constitute a "blank check."

Maliki's response: Back off.

In a trip to Syria this week the Iraqi prime minister scolded his American friends for daring to challenge the will of the Iraqi people who installed him and dismissed their criticism as Washington politics.

It's a role reversal that speaks volumes about the inherent complexities and contradictions of the Bush administration's policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Bush promised Iraq would become a beacon of democracy in sea of Middle East dictatorships. When he won re-election, Bush made promoting democracy in the region the cornerstone of his foreign policy.

But the administration has struggled with the need for stability and support for the democratic process. The election gains of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt all proved democracy could produce undesired results for the U.S. In each of these cases the U.S. abandoned the victor, saying that democratic "elections" are different than governing democratically.

In Iraq, too, the U.S. has abandoned a democratically elected leader when it withdrew its support for Ibrahim al-Jafari, Iraq's former prime minister who also failed to bring reconciliation among Shiia, Sunni and Kurd factions in his government. The U.S. was involved in engineering al-Jafari's ouster in favor of al-Maliki.

Now, despite being democratically elected, al-Maliki risks being cast aside with the same kind of disregard for the democratic selection process the U.S. has criticized around the world.

Publicly no Bush administration official will call for his removal, but the messages emanating from Washington are being seen as signals to al-Maliki's critics that his days are numbered.

But as with Hezbollah and Hamas, Maliki's message to the U.S. is that he will survive without the U.S.

Standing in Syria, a foe which the U.S. has blasted for its failure to respect democracy in Lebanon and its own country, al-Maliki said he would "find friends elsewhere" if he was abandoned by the United States.

A loss of U.S. support could force al-Maliki to turn to Syria or Iran, which the U.S. accuses of meddling in Iraq, supporting insurgents and sending deadly explosives to kill U.S. troops.

That would not be a good day for democracy in Iraq. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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