BAGHDAD - Looking tired and pale but speaking firmly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told McClatchy Newspapers on Tuesday that he has no intention of resigning despite rising U.S. criticism of his government.
In a 50-minute interview in his office in Baghdad's Green Zone, al-Maliki strongly defended his tenure and said that he doesn't expect to be forced out. He said his efforts at national reconciliation, not the buildup of additional U.S. troops or actions by Iraqi security forces, are responsible for improved security.
He blamed the United States and its early policies in Iraq for the sectarianism that plagues the country, and said he opposed the current U.S. policy of working with former Sunni Muslim insurgent groups who've turned against al-Qaida in Iraq because that, too, promotes sectarianism.
Still, he said he isn't yet willing to send U.S. troops home.
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"Now there is a need for them to stay on," al-Maliki said. "When the security situation becomes stable, the need will no longer be there."
The interview was al-Maliki's first with a U.S. news organization since officials in the United States began a drumbeat of criticism against him last week.
Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Hillary Clinton of New York called for the Iraqi parliament to replace him, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq called the government's performance "extremely disappointing" and a new assessment of Iraq by the U.S. intelligence community predicted that al-Maliki's government would grow even weaker over the next 12 months.
Al-Maliki, however, appeared unbowed.
"I wish to give reassurance: Those who speak about pushing out the present regime, whether Carl Levin or Mrs. Hillary Clinton or the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, who apologized for his remarks - none of these pose a real threat to the continuance of this government and the continuance of the political process," he said.
"As for the Iraqi politicians, our partners in the Iraqi government, they pose no threat even if they called for our resignation, for they have no authority within the democratic frame to depose us."
At one point, asked if Iraq's parliament could agree on anything, let alone replacing him, he laughed and said, "So, the government is safe, then."
He said he has the support of Iraq's supreme Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and that he talks to him regularly. He said he'd stopped meeting with fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters in parliament were critical to his election, because al-Sadr no longer is influential even within his own movement.