Bush backs Maliki's 'evolving' leadership in Iraq

WASHINGTON - US President George W. Bush expressed frustration Monday with the slow pace of political change in Iraq but said he still backed the "evolving" leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

En route to Australia after a surprise trip to Iraq, Bush also said that his visit was unlikely to sway opinion among anti-war politicians in the Democratic-led Congress.

"He is evolving as a leader. What I look for is courage, conviction and willingness to ask for help," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One in reference to the under-fire Iraqi leader, according to a pool report.

"My message to Maliki is you've got a lot of work to do and whatever decision is made in Washington DC is all aimed at helping you achieve what is necessary to get the work done," the president said.

Many US lawmakers, among both the Democratic and Bush's Republican parties, have been attacking the Maliki government for failing to translate the apparent security gains of a "surge" of US troops into political reform.

The government has made little to no progress on key questions of reconciliation among warring ethnic factions, sharing oil revenues or constitutional change, the critics argue.

During his unannounced visit Monday to a desert airbase in the long-restive province of Anbar, Bush was accompanied by top US government officials and military commanders for talks with Iraqi leaders including Maliki.

The president said he delivered his appeal for faster political action to all the Iraqi leaders, but also took Maliki aside to give him a personal message.

Bush said the message was that "you're my friend and ... you've made progress in your recent meetings, and now's the time to get these laws passed; you've got hard work to do and you know that we understand that."

Bush came out of meetings with his military and diplomatic chiefs in Iraq to argue that if recent security advances in Anbar were consolidated, "it is possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces."

"The main factor that will affect my decision on troop levels is can we succeed," he said on Air Force One, refusing to speculate before General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker report to Congress in the coming days.

Bush added that he did not expect his Iraqi trip to change minds in Congress. "No, I don't. I don't think a presidential visit will cause people to vote one way or the other," he said.

09/03/2007 22:09 GMT

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