Criticized by U.S., Maliki says Iraq can find other friends

BAGHDAD — Firing back in an escalating war of words, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on Wednesday chided U.S. officials for expressing impatience with the Iraqi government's failure to unite divided political factions and said Iraq would find other friends if the United States was disenchanted.

"These statements do not concern us a lot," Maliki said to reporters while he was visiting Syria. "We will find many around the world who will support us in our endeavor."

Maliki's comments came one day after U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker called the government's failure to tackle legislation intended to ease Sunni and Shiite Muslim tensions "extremely disappointing" and two days after the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee called for the Iraqi parliament to replace Maliki.

President Bush added to the criticism on Tuesday, remarking during a trip to Canada that there is "a certain level of frustration" with Iraq's leaders.

But on Wednesday, Bush attempted to ease the tension, calling Maliki "a good guy, good man with a difficult job, and I support him."

Maliki suggested that U.S. officials were questioning his performance because he was visiting Syria, which the Bush administration has accused of allowing foreign fighters into Iraq.

"The Iraqi government was elected by the Iraqi people," he added.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that 14 U.S. service members died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in northern Iraq on Wednesday. A military statement said the helicopter appeared to have experienced mechanical problems and wasn't shot down. It didn't provide the location where the helicopter went down.

Also Wednesday, the minister of electricity, Karim Wahid, said that it will be three to four years before Iraq has the capacity to generate enough power to supply its residents with electricity for 24 hours each day.

Currently, Iraqis experience varying levels of electrical service depending on a number of factors, such as whether they live close to a power plant or are in a region that supplies electricity. Baghdad has been mostly left in the dark. Its residents receive intermittent power sometimes for only one or two hours a day.

Wahid said that 1,100 workers have been injured, killed or kidnapped while working on the electrical system.

(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee. McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)