Lawmakers step up pressure on Bush

The White House found itself under renewed political pressure Monday as top US lawmakers expressed impatience with Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki and called for a withdrawal of US troops to begin.

Republican John Warner, one of the Senate’s most influential voices on military affairs, amplified his bombshell demand of last week that President George W. Bush should start a limited troop withdrawal from Iraq by Christmas.

“Our troops have performed magnificently, under brilliant leadership, and have done precisely as the president asked,” he told NBC television Sunday.

“But the government, under the leadership of Maliki and other Iraqi leaders, have totally failed to put the other part of that partnership in place, namely deliver greater security.”

Bush last Wednesday defended Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister as “a good man with a difficult job,” seeking to dispel any sense that Washington is distancing itself from the government in Baghdad.

As pressure mounted on Maliki, top Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders announced in Baghdad they had agreed to resolve key disputes that have aggravated sectarian divisions and plunged the country into political turmoil.

A statement from President Jalal Talabani’s office late Sunday said the leaders agreed to ease restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party serving in government ministries, to hold provincial elections — a key demand of Washington — and help security forces in stopping the bloodshed.

The White House quickly seized on the news as an encouraging sign of political progress.

“Today’s agreement is an important symbol of their commitment to work together for the benefit of all Iraqis,” White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said in a statement.

The deal, which still needs to be approved by parliament, comes as Bush faces mounting calls at home for a change in course in Iraq and two weeks before a pivotal progress report on Iraq is presented to the US Congress by top US officials.

Bush has launched a campaign to fend off demands for an early pullout of US troops, saying his “surge” strategy deploying an additional 30,000 troops shows promise and needs to be given more time to work.

But Democrats on Sunday slammed Maliki’s government as a failure and said the current US troop “surge” could not halt sectarian turmoil.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential hopeful, said the “Maliki government is falling apart” with no discernible progress on security and the sectarian rift.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed also expressed disappointment with the Baghdad government but said Iraq’s unrest could not be pinned on a single person after Maliki lashed out at US politicians urging him to go and demanded France apologize for pushing for his departure.

“The notion that if Maliki goes and everything will be fine I think misses the point that the institutional capacity in Iraq, the ability to do simple things — make contracts, provide simple services to people — that’s not present after four years,” Reed told Fox News on Sunday.

The dissident views now being expressed by prominent Republican figures like Warner have piled pressure on the Bush administration for a change of course in Iraq as the mid-September report looms.

Warner declined to rule out a possible break with the US president on a deadline for withdrawing US troops as advocated by Democrats.

Asked if he would vote for a timetable for a pullout, Warner said: “It’s an option we all have to consider.”

Speaking on CNN while drumming up support in Washington for an alternative government, former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi joined calls for Bush to reexamine his pro-Maliki stance.

Allawi, whose mixed Sunni-Shiite party joined a boycott of Maliki’s government earlier this month, accused it of stoking sectarian violence and made clear he would be ready to return to politics if Maliki leaves.