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President George W. Bush on Saturday reaffirmed his support for Iraq's prime minister, telling Nouri al-Maliki that he is not "America's man in Iraq" but a sovereign leader whom the US is aiding.
Playing down tensions over a US plan for benchmarks toward reducing the violence, the leaders said they were "committed to the partnership" and would work "in every way possible for a stable, democratic Iraq and for victory in the war on terror."
In a statement after a 50-minute video conference, Bush and al-Maliki outlined three goals: speeding up the training of Iraq's security forces; moving ahead with Iraqi control of its forces; and making the Iraqi government responsible for the country's security.
A special group of high-level Iraqi ministers will work with the top US commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, and the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, to recommend how best to achieve those goals.
"As leaders of two great countries, we are committed to the security and prosperity of a democratic Iraq and the global fight against terrorism which affects all our citizens," according to the joint statement from Bush and al-Maliki.
During the video hookup, al-Maliki told Bush, "History will record that because of your efforts, Iraq is a free country," according to White House press secretary Tony Snow.
"What you've got in Maliki is a guy who is making decisions," Snow said after the session.
"He's making tough decisions, and he's showing toughness and he's also showing political skill in dealing with varying factions within his own country. And both leaders understand the political pressures going on," Snow said.
Al-Maliki was quoted by a close aide as having told the US ambassador to Iraq on Friday, "I am a friend of the United States, but I am not America's man in Iraq."
In response, Snow told reporters, "He's not America's man in Iraq. The United States is there in a role to assist him. He's the prime minister -he's the leader of the Iraqi people. He is, in fact, the sovereign leader of Iraq."
Al-Maliki squabbled with the Bush administration this week over his objections to a timeline proposed by Washington for bringing security to Iraq.
"There are no strains in the relationship," Snow said.
"In this prime minister, you have somebody in the Iraqi government who wants to take charge, who wants to take responsibility, is working on all fronts, on the economic side, on the security side, and on the political reconciliation side," the spokesman said.
"And he believes it's important to do whatever he can to build greater faith and trust with the Iraqi people in the democracy. So the president's very happy actually with the way the prime minister is working."