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Iraq's Maliki says Biden criticism "out of date"

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki took issue with the new U.S. administration on Tuesday, calling Vice President Joe Biden’s criticism of the slow pace of reform in Iraq “out of date.”

Before leaving Washington last week to deliver a major foreign policy speech in Germany, Biden chided Baghdad for failing to settle disputes over the city of Kirkuk and to enact a law dividing oil revenue, among other issues.

“I think our administration is going to have to be very deeply involved. We are going to have to get in there and be much more aggressive in forcing them to deal with these issues,” Biden said.

Asked about Biden’s remarks on Tuesday, Maliki, an increasingly assertive leader whose followers won surprise victories in provincial elections last month, fired back.

“I believe talk about applying pressure on the Iraqi government or taking hard measures against it no longer works,” he said at a news conference in Baghdad with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Such speech is out of date, because the government of Iraq knows its responsibilities and acts accordingly in a strong way.”

Obama and Biden both campaigned on pledges to withdraw U.S. troops rapidly from Iraq and frequently accused the administration of former President George W. Bush of failing to press Iraqi leaders to make political compromises.

But Maliki has bristled at suggestions that Baghdad needed further prodding to enact laws aimed at reconciling the sects which waged years of warfare against each other, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

“It was we who launched national reconciliation,” he said.

Biden has had a prickly relationship with Iraqi leaders since 2006 when, as head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he proposed dividing Iraq into self-governing Sunni Arab, Shi’ite and Kurdish regions.

Iraqi leaders were furious at that proposal, known as the “Biden plan,” which the Senate backed in 2007 but which has since quietly been shelved.

Maliki has emerged as the lead proponent of a strong central state in Iraq, opposed to measures that would divide the country into self-governing ethnic or sectarian regions.

Support for his allies in the January 31 provincial elections have given him a strong mandate to push for a strong central government when he campaigns for his Dawa Party in parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

Additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Washington; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Michael Christie and Charles Dick