U.S. 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 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, D.C., 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 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 next 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 U.S. Congress and some Republicans are pressing to start the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Arguing that the buildup of U.S. 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.