Bush voices support for al-Maliki

President calls Iraqi premier

Baghdad prepares for pullout

May 22, 2007|By James Gerstenzang and Alexandra Zavis | James Gerstenzang and Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

With pressure growing on both men to stabilize Iraq, President Bush called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday from his Texas ranch to offer a new show of confidence on the first anniversary of al-Maliki's taking office.

The discussion came as Bush faces growing political unrest over his war policies and increasing demands to force Iraqi political leaders to make their government more inclusive and their nation more secure.

In reported remarks yesterday, Bush said "an important moment" in the Iraq war would come in September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, plans to deliver an assessment of progress.

The president's comments, in an interview with Reuters, came as members of both parties in Congress and many in the administration increasingly view the September assessment as a deadline for improvements.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi army has begun to prepare options in case of a sudden U.S. exit, it was announced yesterday. The move has been taken at the direction of the Iraqi defense minister.

Bush has spoken frequently with al-Maliki, spending some of his dwindling political capital supporting the Iraqi leader while also taking the unpopular step of boosting the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The phone call yesterday demonstrated anew the degree to which Bush needs al-Maliki to rein in the nation's fractious politics.

During the call, Bush "reaffirmed his confidence in the prime minister and noted the courage he has shown during a challenging and difficult year," said deputy White House press secretary Tony Fratto.

The White House spokesman said al-Maliki renewed his commitment "to national reconciliation" and to important but elusive legislative agreements such as one establishing an equitable distribution of Iraq's oil wealth to Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

In Baghdad, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader Obeidi asked the army to prepare options in the event of a possible withdrawal of foreign forces.

"This is just a contingency or emergency plan of action to be taken by the joint headquarters," said Lt. Gen. Nasier Abadi, the Iraqi deputy chief of staff. "The military always plans for the worst."

Obeidi "asked for it two, three weeks ago, just in case," Abadi said.

The sudden departures of two of Iraq's most influential leaders, Shiite Muslim politician Abdelaziz Hakim and the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, to seek medical care abroad have thrown added uncertainty into the country's volatile political mix.

The difficulties faced by the Iraqi government were underscored by a series of attacks yesterday that included a mortar shell slamming into the roof of the Iraqi parliament building inside the fortified Green Zone. No casualties were reported.

Police in Baghdad recovered at least 24 unidentified bodies in the 24 hours ending yesterday, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.

In other violence reported yesterday, gunmen in three cars ambushed a minibus carrying off-duty Iraqi soldiers, triggering a gunfight that left at least three soldiers dead and four wounded, police said. The attack took place near Baqouba, in strife-torn Diyala, a religiously mixed province that has suffered escalating violence since U.S. and Iraqi forces began a three-month-old clampdown in nearby Baghdad.

James Gerstenzang and Alexandra Zavis write for the Los Angeles Times.

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