U.S. vows support for Iraq premier

Bush pledges to help al-Maliki get authority over security forces

December 01, 2006|By Peter Wallsten and Solomon Moore | Peter Wallsten and Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

AMMAN, Jordan -- Seeking to recover from a series of diplomatic gaffes, President Bush extolled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's courage and vowed yesterday to help him secure greater authority over security forces in the struggle to quell violence.

But after about two hours of meetings, the leaders announced no new initiatives or specific plans, and Bush returned to Washington and offered no details about how and where such a transfer of authority would occur.

Al-Maliki suggested in an ABC News interview after the meetings that U.S. forces could leave by June. "I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready - fully ready to receive this command and to command its own forces," he said. "And I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready."

But al-Maliki is facing a backlash within his Shiite coalition - 36 politicians representing anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have suspended participation in the Iraqi government in protest of the prime minister's meeting with Bush.

And Sunni Arab leaders are wary of Shiite control of Iraq's security forces, elements of which have carried out death squad killings against Sunnis.

"We hope this meeting can have a positive effect on Iraq," said Adnan Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni politician. "However, the government has to find a real balance in the security forces. Be fair to the Sunnis. Stop the militias. Stop striking the Sunnis and burning and raping our mosques."

Bush and al-Maliki appeared together the day after the disclosure of a White House memo questioning the prime minister's competence and intentions. But the president sought repeatedly to show that he would stand by al-Maliki and leave U.S. troops in Iraq as long as the Baghdad government wants them there.

"He's the right guy for Iraq, and we're going to help him," Bush said, appearing with al-Maliki at a luxury hotel before a backdrop of U.S. and Iraqi flags.

Bush ridiculed critics who have called for American troops to be pulled out of Iraq, a course that has been endorsed by Democratic leaders and is being considered by the independent commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

"This business of a graceful exit has no realism to it at all," Bush said.

Yesterday's events marked the end of another grueling overseas trip for Bush - his second in a month - in which the president spent a great deal of time defending his foreign policy. Besides the focus on Iraq, Bush urged allies at a NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, to devote more resources to Afghanistan, which faces a growing insurgency.

Perhaps Bush's worst moment of the week came on his arrival in Amman, when a Wednesday evening session with al-Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II was abruptly canceled. The move sparked confusion and forced White House aides to insist that al-Maliki was not snubbing the president.

While Bush was animated at times yesterday, al-Maliki appeared uneasy - staring ahead, stone-faced, and deflecting a question about the canceled meeting. Still, the Iraqi leader thanked Bush and embraced the call to speed the transfer of power over security forces from the United States to provincial authorities in Iraq.

"We have agreed together, and we are very clear together, about the importance of accelerating the transfer of the security responsibility," al-Maliki said.

The mutual praise seemed to contradict the White House memo drafted by Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, and first reported Wednesday by The New York Times. In the memo, Hadley pointedly asked whether al-Maliki might be "ignorant" of the growing violence in his country or misrepresenting his views when he claims to support a unity government of Shiites and Sunnis - and whether he is acting to shore up his Shiite support.

"Despite Maliki's reassuring words, repeated reports from our commanders on the ground contributed to our concerns about Maliki's government," wrote Hadley, who met with the prime minister Oct. 30 during a visit to Baghdad. "Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister's office to stop military action against Shia targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq's most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries ... all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad."

Hadley wrote the memo Nov. 8, the day after Democrats won control of Congress with a pledge to change course in Iraq. But far from the contrition that Bush demonstrated in the days after the Nov. 7 election, the president sounded the same defiance yesterday that he did on the campaign trail, arguing that pulling out U.S. troops would embolden terrorists.

Bush seemed to allude to the Hadley memo at one point when he offered an adamant defense of al-Maliki's support for ethnic coalitions.

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