WASHINGTON,(Reuters) – President George W. Bush said on Wednesday American patience over Iraq had its limits but pledged not to put unbearable pressure on the country’s leaders, after a protest by Iraq’s prime minister.
With less than two weeks before Nov. 7 elections in which doubts over Iraq could cost Bush’s Republicans control of the U.S. Congress, Bush sought to explain his Iraq policies to Americans and smooth over new frictions with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Worries over increasing sectarian violence in Iraq have become a top issue for American voters ahead of the elections. The concerns, accompanied by calls to withdraw American troops, are driven by a mounting U.S. military death toll that reached 90 so far in October, the deadliest month for a year.
“We’re pressing Iraq’s leaders to take bold measures to save their country. We’re making it clear that American patience is not unlimited,” Bush told a White House news conference.
Even so, he added, “We will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear.”
Bush said the United States remained committed to Iraq “until the job is done,” but would adjust tactics to confront a changing enemy.
He voiced qualified confidence in Maliki. “We’re with him as long as he continues to make tough decisions,” Bush said.
Tensions between the two leaders surfaced a day after U.S. officials in Baghdad said Iraq had agreed to a “schedule” toward a stable democracy.
Maliki distanced himself from the U.S.-announced “timeline” to end sectarian violence and criticized a raid on a Shi’ite militia stronghold aimed at a suspected death squad leader.
“The Americans have the right to review their policies, but we do not believe in a timetable and no one will impose one on us,” Maliki, himself a Shi’ite, told a Baghdad news conference.
Maliki also contradicted a U.S. military statement which said Wednesday’s Iraqi-U.S. ground and air assault on the crowded Sadr City slum district of Baghdad in which four people were killed, had been authorized by his government.
“We will be seeking an explanation from the multinational forces to avoid a repetition of what happened without our cooperation in advance,” Maliki said.
Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Tuesday he expected Iraq’s government to make “significant progress” on a series of political and security steps over the next 12 months, a time frame he called realistic.
U.S. officials have avoided using the term “deadline” and Bush said a timetable for a withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq was different from such “benchmarks.”
“This notion of a fixed timetable of withdrawal, in my judgment, means defeat. We can’t leave until the job is done,” Bush said. He said Maliki was right that no outside power could force him into actions.
Bush said he would not leave U.S. troops caught in the sectarian cross-fire and would bring them home tomorrow “if I did not think our mission in Iraq was vital to American security.”
Maliki repeated that he would deal with sectarian militias responsible for much of the bloodletting in Iraq.
The differences over the raid on Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, illustrated the conflicting political pressures on Maliki and his American allies.
Sadr is a powerful force behind Maliki, who has struggled to balance competing demands of the Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds in his unity coalition since taking office six months ago.
The U.S. military said Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. air strikes conducted the raid to capture the commander of an illegal armed group suspected of directing death squads.
It was unclear whether the commander had been captured or killed. The Interior Ministry said the assault had killed four people and wounded 20 in that raid and as many as 10 militants killed in overnight air strikes in Sadr City. Residents said the dead included two Mehdi Army militiamen.
Much of the anger in Sadr City was directed at the prime minister.
“Where is Maliki? Where is his freedom?,” said a man lying on a stretcher in the hospital. Thousands of men chanting “No to America” choked the streets in a mourning cortege that accompanied four vehicles bearing the coffins of the dead to burial in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, south of the capital.