Baghdad, Iraq Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned the Bush administration after talks with longtime U.S. adversaries in Syria on Wednesday that Iraq "can find friends elsewhere" if Washington doesn't like the way he runs his country.
Al-Maliki's defiant rhetoric followed criticism from the White House and congressional leaders in recent days of the leader's ability to unite his Cabinet and improve stability.
Together with his recent overtures to Iran and Syria, it raised questions about his diplomatic priorities and sensitivity to U.S. concerns about two neighboring countries Washington accuses of supporting terrorism.
"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people," al-Maliki said at a news conference in Damascus, where he is making a three-day visit. "Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution, and can find friends elsewhere."
Al-Maliki said that the criticism from the United States was motivated by election politics.
Analysts said they doubted that the criticism of al-Maliki indicated Washington was engaged in a serious effort to remove him, because that would lead to months more of political wrangling in Baghdad. More likely, they said, the administration was preparing the American public for a disappointing Iraq progress report next month.
Al-Maliki's political opponents have complained about his focus on foreign policy at a time when vital legislation languishes and sectarian differences have set his Cabinet ministers against each other.
If the Iraqi government doesn't respond to the demands of the Iraqi people, President Bush said Tuesday, "they will replace the government."
The White House appeared to step back from that message Wednesday. Bush praised al- Maliki as "a good guy" with a tough job who deserved U.S. backing.
National-security spokes- man Gordon Johndroe said Bush felt his comments Tuesday were "misreported." He said that the Iraqi prime minister "knows we're frustrated" but also that Bush continues to support him.
Analysts contend Washington has little choice but to stick with al-Maliki.
"Washington is frustrated with (al-)Maliki, but the problem is rooted in the absence of a credible political framework to build a peace process around. As a result, we are entering a period of passing the blame," said Vali Nasr, a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.