BAGHDAD — The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq on Tuesday called the country's political progress "extremely disappointing" and warned that support for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is not unlimited.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker's remarks to reporters were the harshest criticism yet by a Bush administration official of Maliki's government and may be a prelude to what he'll tell Congress in a report that he and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, will give next month.
"The progress on the national level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned — to us, to Iraqis, to the Iraqi leadership itself," Crocker said.
"We do expect results, as do the Iraqi people, and our support is not a blank check."
The Bush administration has long met criticism of Maliki with words of support, but in the past few months Maliki's government has been unraveling as factions have resigned from Cabinet posts or announced boycotts.
Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, also has been openly critical of U.S. efforts to bring former Sunni insurgents into the Iraqi security forces, saying that some of the former insurgents are potential enemies of his government.
Crocker acknowledged Tuesday that the decision by some Sunni tribes in Anbar to align themselves with the United States against al Qaida in Iraq wasn't a sign of reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni minority and the Shiite-led government.
"It is probably an essential prerequisite for reconciliation," he said. "But it isn't reconciliation."
Crocker's comments are in line with what seems to be growing disaffection with Maliki's government as the Sept. 15 deadline for a congressionally required assessment of Iraq progress nears. On Monday, the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called for the Iraqi parliament to replace Maliki.
Last week, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen Raymond Odierno, also told reporters that the government didn't have a "blank check" when asked how long the U.S. would wait for Maliki to reach out to Sunni groups working with the military.
On Tuesday, President Bush in Canada offered little support for Maliki. "If the government doesn't ... respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government," he said. "That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians."
Meanwhile, Maliki made his first official visit to Syria, which the U.S. has long criticized for allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq. Last week, Maliki visited Iran, where he was seen laughing and smiling with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The criticism of Maliki comes as a battle between Shiite militias seems to be heating up in southern Iraq. On Tuesday, firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr denied that his followers were responsible for the recent assassinations of the governors of Diwaniyah and Muthanna provinces. Both men were members of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a political rival to Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Sadr said U.S. forces were to blame, calling the killings "an extension to the colonization plans of the occupation that want to create the atmosphere and excuses that allow for them to stay in our lovely country."
Also on Tuesday, the trial began for 15 former officials of the government of Saddam Hussein, including the infamous "Chemical Ali," Ali Hassan al Majid, in connection with the killing of Shiites after a failed uprising that began after U.S. troops drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
The court session included testimony from the first of an expected 90 witnesses. Khrebit Jabbar, Risan, 65, of Basra, told how Saddam's Republican Guard killed his son, cousin and nephew after the uprising.
(McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)