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Bush-Al-Maliki meeting postponed for a day

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Posted: November 29, 2006 4:56 p.m.
Updated: December 18, 2006 9:51 a.m.
AMMAN, Jordan — President Bush’s high-stakes summit with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was put off Wednesday amid political unrest in Baghdad and public disclosure of U.S. doubts about the Iraqi leader’s capacity to control sectarian warfare.
    The White House said Bush and al-Maliki would meet on Thursday to discuss how Iraqi forces can assume more security responsibilities faster.
    The postponement was announced shortly after Bush arrived here for talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and al-Maliki. Bush’s meeting and dinner with the king proceeded on schedule at Raghadan Palace.
    Iraqi officials balked at the three-way meeting after learning Abdullah wanted to broaden the talks to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Redha Jawad Taqi, a senior aide of top Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who also was in Amman. On Sunday, Abdullah had said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a core issue.
    Two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the prime minister had been reluctant to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want ‘‘a third party’’ involved in talks about subjects specific to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.
    ‘‘We insisted that the meeting be canceled,’’ said one of the officials.
    The change of plans appeared to surprise some members of Bush’s entourage. Boarding the motorcade for the trip to the palace, White House press secretary Tony Snow said there were still discussions about whether a photo op Wednesday night would include al-Maliki.
    The Iraqi prime minister faced political pressure at home about the summit. Thirty Iraqi lawmakers and five cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they were boycotting participating in Parliament and the government to protest al-Maliki’s presence at the summit.
    White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that the delay was a snub by al-Maliki or was related to the leak of a memo by a top White House adviser questioning the prime minister’s capacity for controlling violence in Iraq.
    ‘‘Absolutely not,’’ Bartlett said.’’ He said the king and the prime minister had met before Bush arrived from a NATO summit in Latvia. ‘‘That negated the purpose for the three of them to meet tonight, together.’’
    Bartlett said that Wednesday night’s three-way meeting had always been planned as ‘‘more of a social meeting’’ and that Bush and Maliki on Thursday would have a ‘‘robust’’ meeting on their own.
    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.
    U.S. involvement in Iraq 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 had said earlier.
    The White House has avoided saying that Bush would pressure 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.
    But in a classified Nov. 8 memo following his Oct. 30 trip to Baghdad, Hadley expressed serious doubts about whether al-Maliki could control the sectarian violence, 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 memo said.
    In an unusual move for a White House that typically refuses to discuss classified material, the White House did not dispute the accuracy of the memo. But a senior administration official said the document, taken as a whole, was 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 al-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?’ ‘‘
    Press secretary Snow told reporters that al-Maliki ‘‘has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges.’’
    Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the memo’s doubts about al-Maliki ‘‘seemed calculated to steel his spine.’’
    ‘‘This memo reads to me more like a memo to Prime Minister al-Maliki than to President Bush,’’ he said. ‘‘It has his entire to-do list as well as a list of what he’ll get if he agrees.’’
    Abdullah 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, a term the White House has rejected.
    In Washington on Wednesday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called on Bush to appoint a high-ranking special envoy to work with the Iraqi government on disbanding militias, including all Iraq’s factions in the political process, and equitably distributing resources such as oil revenues.
    ‘‘Steps have to be taken now,’’ he said.
    Bush’s meeting with al-Maliki is part of a new flurry of diplomacy the 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.
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