WASHINGTON — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki told President Bush on Monday that U.S. officials have been undermining his government, and sought reassurance that the administration was not preparing to abandon him.
During a 15-minute morning phone call, Maliki said he was concerned that U.S. officials had openly suggested imposing a two-month deadline for him to gain control of militias and quell sectarian violence, said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.
Maliki said that calls for such a deadline, and proposals for a three-way partition of Iraq, "were undermining his government," Snow said.
Snow said that Bush, who initiated the phone call, encouraged the prime minister "to ignore rumors that the United States government was seeking to impose a timeline on the Maliki government."
But when asked whether Bush had "total confidence" in Maliki's Shiite-dominated government, Snow said the president "believes the prime minister is doing everything in his power" to stem the country's raging violence, adding, "There has to be more to be done. The violence levels are absolutely unacceptable."
The exchange came on a day when the death toll from bombings, shootings and extrajudicial killings in Iraq surpassed 100, and after a weekend in which at least 80 people died in sectarian fighting north of Baghdad.
Snow speculated that Maliki might have been concerned about the deadline because of comments this month by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the United States might have to consider a change in direction if the Iraqi government was unable to restore order after two or three months. After a recent visit to Iraq, Warner said he feared the country was "drifting sideways."
Warner is only one of a number of lawmakers who have turned pessimistic about the direction of the country after visiting Baghdad and conferring with Iraqi leaders and U.S. civilian and military officials. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad declared that the government needed to show progress within a few months.
A congressionally chartered panel co-chaired by former Secretary of States James A. Baker III also is preparing to recommend a new direction.
Bush administration officials acknowledge that they are troubled by the violence in Iraq.
But U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad say the U.S. has few options but to stay in Iraq and back the elected government.
Any effort to replace Maliki, they say, might be met with a massive uprising by the Shiite population as well as the armed militias that back the prime minister. And analysts say they believe the U.S. will never abandon Iraq as long as Iran, Syria and the Al Qaeda network are waiting in the wings to fill any power vacuum.
Iraqi officials acknowledge that Maliki heads a government divided along sectarian lines that is fundamentally weak and unable to exert its authority.
"The prime minister does not have the right to do something, though he has an exalted position," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni coalition in the Maliki government.
Inaction on the part of Maliki has created a vacuum that is being filled by armed activity by both Shiites and Sunnis.
Over the weekend, the Mujahedin Shura Council, a Sunni insurgent umbrella group, released a tape announcing the creation of an Islamic state encompassing six Iraqi provinces, to be headed by a prince named Abu Omar Baghdadi. The tape could not be verified, but the declaration, read by a man identified as a minister of information, fed the sense that Iraq is spinning out of control.
"I think the government is seen as representing one part of Iraqi society," said a Western analyst in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "When the Sunnis under Saddam dominated Iraq they also represented one segment of the society, but they had an overwhelming force to back that up. These guys don't. There are other forces out there."
Analysts say Maliki was dealt a bad hand from the start. A relative unknown, he became his Shiite coalition's consensus candidate after his predecessor and mentor, Ibrahim Jafari, was ousted by his party amid waning confidence among Iraqis and U.S. officials. Both Jafari and Maliki belong to the Islamic Dawa Party, the only one of the main Shiite groups that doesn't have a major militia, and hence poses little threat to the stronger Shiite groups.
U.S. officials' insistence that Maliki form a national unity government and set up a consensus Cabinet further curtailed his weak constitutional powers.
"The government does not have an identity," said Izzat Shahbandar, a member of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's coalition. "No one feels patriotic sentiments toward it."
In Iraq's conspiracy-obsessed political culture, U.S. efforts to pressure Maliki sparked whispers of a possible American-backed coup d'etat against his government.