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Bush draws line on troop withdrawals, though Iraqi leader says his forces will be ready by June

AMMAN, Jordan — President Bush on Thursday rejected calls for a measured withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, facing doubts about his ability to dampen violence, asserted his forces could take full control by June.
    A day after publication of a leaked White House memo questioning al-Maliki’s leadership capabilities, Bush shared a news conference stage with him and offered what sounded like unconditional support. ‘‘He’s a strong leader,’’ Bush said. ‘‘He’s the right guy for Iraq.’’
    Still, Bush and his advisers acknowledged formidable challenges for the Iraqi leader in quelling rising sectarian violence.
    ‘‘There is a real sense of urgency but there is not a sense of panic,’’ said Stephen J. Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser and the author of a leaked memo that underscored doubts about al-Maliki.
    The president used the news conference in the Jordanian capital to get in front of reports that a special committee headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton would call for a phased withdrawal of troops to begin.
    ‘‘I know there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,’’ Bush said. But he said if there is talk of a timetable, ‘‘all that does is set people up for unrealistic expectations.’’
    Al-Maliki, meanwhile, declared in an interview with ABC News that Iraqi forces would soon be in a position to take over security for the country — a position U.S. officials have questioned.
    ‘‘I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready,’’ he said.
    It’s not the first time al-Maliki has spoken of a six-month time frame for having Iraqi soldiers and police up to speed. But his latest words could be seen as implicit OK for the U.S. to prepare for the gradual withdrawal that is expected to be recommended by the Baker-Hamilton commission.
    On the Air Force One flight back to Washington, Hadley said Bush would not act immediately on Iraq policy in light of the commission’s coming report, but in ‘‘weeks rather than months.’’
    ‘‘This is an important report,’’ he said. ‘‘We are at an important stage on the issue of Iraq and it’s not something we should shoot from the hip on.’’
    Rising opposition to the war contributed to the Republican loss of both houses of Congress in midterm elections, and increasing calls for a change in strategy are coming from Democrats and many Republicans. Bush acknowledged the clamor and said he understood how a withdrawal might be popular.
    Still, he declared, ‘‘We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there.’’
    Bush said he wanted to begin withdrawing troops ‘‘as soon as possible. But I’m a realist because I understand how tough it is inside of Iraq.’’
    There are about 140,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. In fact, the Pentagon is developing plans to send in four more battalions — about 3,500 troops — early next year, partly to boost security in Baghdad,
    Bush said he and al-Maliki agreed to speed the training of Iraqi security forces and turn over more military responsibility to Iraqis.
    But their meeting — their third in person since al-Maliki took office last spring — delivered little in the way of specifics, or new ideas for turning the tide in a war that has now raged three years and almost nine months, longer than U.S. involvement in World War II.
    The get-together got off to a rocky start when al-Maliki abruptly pulled out of a planned meeting Wednesday with Bush and summit host King Abdullah II of Jordan.
    But the leaders seemed to regain their footing Thursday as they shared a platform at a joint news conference.
    ‘‘He’s a strong leader who wants a free and democratic Iraq to succeed,’’ Bush said. ‘‘No question it’s a violent society right now. He knows that better than anybody. He was explaining to me that occasionally the house in which he lives gets shelled by terrorists who are trying to frighten him,’’ Bush said.
    Al-Maliki thanked Bush for his support.
    One issue of discord was sounded: U.S. concern over al-Maliki’s links to a heavily armed Shiite militia blamed for much of the country’s sectarian violence and its leader, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
    At their news conference, Bush sidestepped a question about al-Sadr and deferred to al-Maliki.
    ‘‘My coalition is not with only one entity,’’ the Iraqi leader said. ‘‘Mr. al-Sadr and Sadrists (his political organization) are just one component.’’
    Lawmakers and cabinet ministers loyal to al-Sadr are boycotting Iraq’s parliament and government to protest al-Maliki’s meeting with Bush. During the joint news conference, al-Maliki called for an end to the boycott.
    According to a senior al-Maliki aide, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier Thursday pressed the Iraqi prime minister to do more to disband the militia loyal to al-Sadr and other such independent military units. ‘‘It is not a big problem,and we will find a solution for it,’’ al-Maliki told Bush, according to the al-Maliki aide, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the information.
    A senior U.S. administration official who was present at Thursday’s breakfast between the full U.S. and Iraqi delegations said there was a discussion of al-Sadr and the role of unsanctioned militias in Iraqi violence.
    It was clear that al-Maliki recognizes this as a challenge his government must overcome, said the official.
    On another sticking point, the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq, Bush reiterated his opposition to overtures to Iran to help with stabilizing the country. In addition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, ‘‘I believe the Iranians fear democracy,’’ Bush said.
    But al-Maliki said he wanted to work with Iraq’s neighbors, suggesting he wasn’t opposed to closer ties with countries such as Iran and Syria.
    After the news conference Bush immediately left for Washington, arriving at midafternoon from a four-day trip that also had taken him to the Baltic nations of Estonia and Latvia, where he attended a NATO summit.

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