BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Tuesday that the era of US dominance was over, in a broadside to Washington almost six years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
The Shiite premier, boosted by the strong showing by his allies in provincial elections, said Iraq was now taking charge of its own destiny and was making good progress toward rebuilding the war-torn country.
His remarks were a pointed rebuke to US Vice President Joe Biden, who last week said Washington would have to be “more aggressive” in pushing Baghdad toward faster political reform.
“The time for putting pressure on Iraq is over,” Maliki told reporters, asked about Biden’s comments.
“The Iraqi government knows what are its responsibilities. We are carrying out reform and we are in the last step of the reconciliation.”
Biden said the January 31 provincial elections — in which Maliki’s allies triumphed — had shown that progress was being made, but more needed to be done as Iraq’s leaders had not “gotten their political arrangements together yet.”
The new US administration of President Barack Obama would have to be “much more aggressive… forcing them to deal with those issues,” Biden said.
Maliki’s remarks are a strong signal ahead of a general election due to be held in about a year that he is unwilling to allow the United States to dictate how Iraq should rebuild and consolidate its fledgling democracy.
“We succeeded in solving problems created by Paul Bremer (head of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority put in place after the 2003 invasion), like the dismantling of the army and other institutions,” he added, in another dig at the history of America’s influence in Iraq.
Just over half of Iraqis voted in the largely trouble-free provincial elections, which were seen as a vital test of the country’s progress since the invasion.
Candidates backed by Maliki dominated in Baghdad and in eight of the country’s nine Shiite provinces, in a huge vote of confidence for the premier, whose standing has steadily grown at home and abroad in the past year.
The election was widely seen as a referendum on Maliki’s performance as premier, and was praised as a vital step forward by world leaders including Obama.
Maliki’s comments at a joint press conference with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy come at a time when Obama is eager to pull thousands of troops out of Iraq and redeploy them to Afghanistan.
Obama regards Afghanistan, where US military commanders and diplomats say security has deteriorated, as the front line of the war against Al-Qaeda and other militant forces.
US envoy to Kabul Richard Holbrooke warned on Sunday that fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan could prove tougher than in Iraq and appealed, along with Britain, for more troops and equipment.
“It is like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq,” he said at an international security conference in Germany.
Maliki’s standing has grown in the past 12 months as he has presented a secular national agenda in response to the sectarianism that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2007.
Last year he won plaudits for taking a tough stance in negotiations over a key security agreement with Washington that will see US troops leave the country by the end of 2011.
He also ordered Iraqi forces in 2008 to take on Shiite militiamen in hotspots such as the provinces of Basra, Maysan and Diyala as well as Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City.