Bush says Maliki is 'right guy for Iraq'

Times Staff Writers

Seeking to recover from a series of diplomatic gaffes, President Bush on Thursday extolled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's "courage" and vowed to help him gain 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 without offering details about how and where a transfer of authority would occur -- or how quickly it might stem the civil war.

In an ABC News interview after the meetings, Maliki said U.S. forces would be able to leave Iraq by June.

"I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready -- fully ready -- to receive this command and to command its own forces," Maliki told interviewer Charles Gibson. "And I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready."

But Maliki is facing a backlash within his own Shiite coalition: 36 politicians loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr have suspended their participation in the government to protest the prime minister's meeting with Bush.

And Sunni Arab leaders are wary of greater Shiite control over Iraq's security forces, elements of which are widely accused of thousands of death-squad killings of Sunnis.

"We hope that this meeting can have a positive effect on Iraq," said Adnan Dulaimi, head of the Sunni bloc in parliament. "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 Maliki appeared together the day after the disclosure of a classified White House memo questioning Maliki's competence and intentions. But the president sought repeatedly to show that he would stand by the prime minister and leave U.S. troops in Iraq as long as that country's government wanted them there.

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

Bush also ridiculed critics in the U.S. 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 and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).

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

Thursday's events marked the end of another grueling overseas trip for Bush -- the second for the month -- in which Bush spent a great deal of time defending his foreign policy. Bush urged allies at a NATO summit in the Latvian capital to devote more resources to Afghanistan, where the insurgency is growing.

But perhaps Bush's worst moment of the week came upon his arrival Wednesday in the Jordanian capital of Amman, when his evening meeting with Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II was abruptly canceled.

The cancellation sparked confusion and forced White House aides to insist that Maliki was not snubbing the president.

Though Bush spoke energetically at times Thursday, Maliki appeared uneasy -- staring ahead, stone-faced and deflecting a question about the canceled meeting by saying only that there was "no problem."

The Iraqi leader thanked Bush and embraced the call for speeding the transfer of power over security forces from the U.S. 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," Maliki said.

The mutual praise seemed to directly contradict the White House memo, drafted by national security advisor Stephen Hadley and reported Wednesday by the New York Times. In the memo, Hadley pointedly suggested that Maliki might be "ignorant" of the nature of the growing violence in his country or misrepresenting his views when he claimed to support a unity government of Shiites and Sunnis -- and that he might be 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 in 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's memo is dated Nov. 8, the day after Democrats won control of Congress with a pledge to change course in Iraq. But contrary to Bush's conciliatory attitude in the days after the election, the president sounded as defiant Thursday as he did on the campaign trail -- even arguing that pulling out U.S. troops "would only embolden terrorists."

Bush seemed to allude to the Hadley memo when he adamantly defended Maliki's support for coalitions. "You hear all kinds of rumors about the politics inside of Iraq," he said. "I'm talking to the man face-to-face, and he says that he understands that a unified government, a pluralistic society, is important for success."

Maliki, for his part, sought to downplay the power of Shiite cleric Sadr, who controls enough seats in the legislature to bring down Maliki's government.

"My coalition is not with only one entity," he said. "I do not talk about one side at the expense of the other."

Ghufran Saidi, a Sadr parliament member, said that her fellow Sadr representatives would indefinitely suspend their involvement in government and leave several of Iraq's most important ministries in the hands of deputies until their return.

"Our main problem in Iraq is the continuing occupation," she said. "When parliament spoke to the security ministers and Cabinet, it was evident that the military and police were not able to develop themselves or acquire new and effective weaponry.

"They are not even able to move a small army unit from here to there without prior approval of the occupation forces. This is not sovereignty!"

While the Amman meetings took place, violence in Iraq continued.

Iraqi soldiers found the remains of at least 28 people, apparently recent death squad victims, south of Baqubah on Thursday, according to the U.S. military and Iraqi police.

In Baghdad, nine bodies were found, all shot execution-style and showing signs of torture, and at least 23 people were killed in clashes and bomb attacks.

The U.S. military said an American soldier was killed in Baghdad on Thursday, and another died Wednesday in the capital.

In Samarra, 14 suspected insurgents were killed by U.S. airstrikes, the U.S. military said.

Iraqi police intelligence agents clashed Thursday with Sadr's Al Mahdi army in the militia's stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad in a 90-minute battle, witnesses said.

In the genocide trial of Saddam Hussein, for allegedly directing a 1987-88 military campaign that killed tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians, forensic examiners showed the court pictures of skeletal remains, clothes and other evidence that Iraqi soldiers executed babies as young as 3 to 9 months.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

moore1@latimes.com

Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Suhail Ahmad and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.

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