US President George W. Bush, scrambling to show he still backs embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, offered him a fresh endorsement, calling him "a good guy, good man with a difficult job."
"I support him," Bush said on Wednesday, a day after he acknowledged frustration with the Iraqi leader's inability to bridge political divisions in his country. "It's not up to the politicians in Washington to say whether he will remain in his position. It is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship."
Bush's validation of al-Maliki, inserted at the last minute into his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) convention on Wednesday, stole the spotlight from Bush's attempt to buttress support for the war by likening today's fight against extremism to past conflicts in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Bush's speech -- and another one like it on Tuesday -- are intended to set the stage for a crucial report next month on the progress of the fighting and steps toward political reconciliation in Iraq. Democrats in the US Congress and some Republicans are pressing to start the withdrawal of US forces.
Yesterday, US intelligence agencies was to issue a new assessment expressing doubt that al-Maliki's government can overcome sectarian divisions or meet benchmarks toward achieving political unity, the New York Times reported on its Web site Wednesday night. The report cited unidentified officials.
Arguing that the buildup of US forces was showing results, Bush said, "Our troops are seeing this progress that is being made on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: `Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?'"
Comparing Iraq with earlier wars, Bush said, "The question now before us comes down to this: `Will today's generation of Americans resist the deceptive allure of retreat and do in the Middle East what veterans in this room did in Asia?'"
Bush had appeared on Tuesday to be distancing himself from the Iraqi leader when he said at a North American summit in Canada: "Clearly, the Iraqi government's got to do more."
The White House denied Bush was backing away from al-Maliki, but it was lukewarm validation compared with Bush calling al-Maliki "the right guy for Iraq" last November in Jordan.
Al-Maliki, on a trip to Syria, sharply rejected the US criticism. He said no one has the right to impose timetables on his elected government, and that Iraq can "find friends elsewhere."
Without naming any US official, al-Maliki said some criticism of him and his government in recent days had been "discourteous."
On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, urged Iraq's parliament to oust al-Maliki and replace his government with a more unifying one.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the 2008 Democratic presidential front-runner, echoed Levin's call on Wednesday. Clinton said Iraqis should find a "less divisive and more unifying figure."
Iraq is so divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, however, that there is doubt as to whether any other politician could do a better job.
On Tuesday, US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said progress on national issues had been "extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned."