Bush focusing on Iraqi troop training in urgent talks with al-Maliki

Published 7:51 pm Wednesday, November 29, 2006

President Bush, under pressure to find a new blueprint for Iraq, meets Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Wednesday in a high-stakes summit designed to find out how they can jointly chart a stable, peaceful future for the fragile government.

Bush was poised to sit down with al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, where the president was expected to ask the embattled Iraqi prime minister how best to train Iraqi forces faster so they can shoulder more responsibility for halting the sectarian violence and, specifically, mending a gaping Sunni-Shiite divide.

The two-day summit was beginning even as a top White House adviser raised doubts about al-Maliki’s ability to halt escalating sectarian violence.

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Bush stood in silence at a NATO summit in this Baltic capital Wednesday morning, listening to a bugler play taps in honor of those fallen in service to the alliance, most recently in Afghanistan.

A few hours later, Bush was scheduled to be at Raghadan Palace, high on a hill in the Jordanian capital, grappling with the problems in Iraq where U.S. involvement now exceeds the length of America’s participation in World War II.

“We will discuss the situation on the ground in his country, our ongoing efforts to transfer more responsibility to the Iraqi security forces, and the responsibility of other nations in the region to support the security and stability of Iraq,” Bush said Tuesday at the NATO summit.

“We’ll continue to be flexible, and we’ll make the changes necessary to succeed. But there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”

The White House has avoided saying that Bush will be pressuring al-Maliki at the meeting to do more to stop the bloodshed. National security adviser Stephen Hadley says the Iraqi prime minister pushes himself — and that Bush will be listening to al-Maliki’s ideas, not imposing plans on him.

In a classified Nov. 8 memo following his Oct. 30 trip to Baghdad, Hadley expressed serious doubts about whether al-Maliki had the capacity to control the sectarian violence in Iraq, and recommended steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader’s position, The New York Times reported in Wednesday editions.

“The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action,” the story quoted the memo as saying.

The White House did not dispute the accuracy of the quoted material from the memo, but a senior administration official reacting on condition of anonymity to details of the published classified memo said Wednesday that, taken as a whole, it is an expression of support for al-Maliki. “You have a constant reiteration of the importance of strengthening the Maliki government, the need to work with him, to augment his capabilities,” the official said.

He added that Bush and Maliki have a “personal relationship” that allows them to “talk candidly about the challenges.”

Another official, also speaking anonymously because of the classified nature of the memo, said it was not “a slap in the face, but it’s, ‘How do we grow his capability.’”

“The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki, and also the administration is working with the prime minister to improve his capabilities,” Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, adding that Maliki “has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah, who is hosting the meetings, has warned that unless bold steps are taken posthaste, the new year could dawn with three civil wars in the Mideast — in Lebanon, between the Palestinians and Israelis and in Iraq. He says the fighting in Iraq amounts to a civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites, but Bush chooses to characterize it differently.

“No question it’s tough,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented, in my opinion, because of these attacks by al-Qaida, causing people to seek reprisal.”

His meeting with al-Maliki is part of a new flurry of diplomacy the Bush administration has undertaken across the Middle East. Hadley’s memo suggests that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hold a meeting for Iraq and its neighbors in the region early next month.

After the Bush-al-Maliki summit, Rice is staying behind in the region for talks with Palestinian, and possibly, Israeli leaders, who agreed last weekend on a cease-fire to end five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Last weekend, Vice President Dick Cheney took a brief trip to consult with Saudi Arabia about recent Mideast developments.

Hadley suggested in his memo that the United States could step up its efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq. Hadley said Saudi Arabia could use its influence to move Sunni populations in Iraq out of violence and into politics, cut off any public or private funding provided to the insurgents or death squads from the region and lean on Syria to terminate its support for Baathists and insurgent leaders.

Bush is regaining his footing on the world stage after the November election when Democrats seized the reins of both the House and Senate. The election was largely viewed as a referendum on the war, and the day after, Bush announced that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was stepping down from his post.

Recent U.S. elections fueled the Democrats’ argument that U.S. soldiers need to start coming home, a move some believe would force the Iraqis to take care of their own security needs.

Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, the president is grappling with other flash points that are testing his foreign policy decisions. Iran and Syria are flexing their muscles in the Middle East. Tehran has refused to give up its nuclear programs. The cease-fire in Gaza is fragile. The assassination of an anti-Syrian leader in Lebanon last week undermined the nation’s young, Western-backed government.

Iraqi officials say the United States wants other Sunni governments in the area, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, to persuade moderate Sunnis in Iraq to line up with al-Maliki. That would give him political clout he needs to challenge radical militias trying to undermine his authority.

Those three governments also are urging the United States to resume its role as mediator in the long-festering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, an issue that prejudices relations throughout the region.

Back in Washington, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel created to recommend a new way forward in Iraq, was meeting for a third day. The independent panel, set to issue a report next month, did not reach a consensus Tuesday on how many or how long U.S. troops should remain in Iraq, forcing the group to return for a third day of debate.