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Bush meets Maliki, stands firm on Iraq

Times Staff Writers

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki convened for breakfast this morning, the day after an abrupt cancellation of their initial meeting embarrassed the White House and hinted at diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

The cancellation followed the disclosure of a White House memo questioning Maliki’s ability to pacify his country and came after a Shiite bloc announced a boycott of the Baghdad government.

Bush and Maliki also met privately today and then held a joint news conference before the president’s return to Washington. Bush and Maliki said they agreed to speed the training of Iraqi security forces, and they pledged to continue cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq to stem violence.

“I told the prime minister that our goal in Iraq is to strengthen his government and support his efforts to build a free Iraq,” Bush said.

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But Wednesday’s developments threatened to spoil a summit that administration officials had hoped would demonstrate progress in devising strategies for stemming civil strife in Iraq.

White House officials spent the day on the defensive, insisting they had faith in Maliki despite the harsh content of the leaked memo and struggling to explain why a meeting that had been on the president’s calendar for days was suddenly scrubbed.

Senior Bush aides offered at least four explanations for the cancellation -- finally dispatching a more junior official to tell reporters late Wednesday that Maliki and Jordan’s King Abdullah II had decided mutually that a three-way conversation was not necessary.

The Jordanian and Iraqi leaders had met earlier in the day and sent word of their decision to Bush as the president flew to Amman from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Latvia.

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White House officials insisted the schedule change was not a snub in response to the memo, disclosed Wednesday by the New York Times, nor was it related, they said, to a government boycott in Iraq by Shiite legislators affiliated with anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr.

“No one should read too much into this,” said Dan Bartlett, a Bush advisor.

Bush and Abdullah met privately for 30 minutes before joining their aides for a dinner lasting more than an hour. They discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon and Syria but did not focus on Iraq, officials said.

Despite recent assurances from Bush and his aides that the president would use his meetings in Amman to ask tough questions of Maliki about the Iraqi leader’s plans to stem the violence, Bartlett said the initial gathering had been foreseen as “more of a social meeting anyways.”

“Look, they were not going to be doing a full-detail discussion in a [three-way] setting about Iraq and the future of Iraq and the strategy anyway. That just wouldn’t be appropriate,” Bartlett said.

Still, the surprising change of plans suggested more was at work than a scheduling matter among friends.

Bush rarely deviates from plans -- and officials acknowledged that they departed Latvia with the understanding that he would meet with Maliki that night.

The Jordanians and Iraqis offered different explanations for the cancellation.

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A royal court source said Abdullah and Bush met longer than expected and had to cancel the meeting with Maliki. The source said Maliki could be using the delay, which was requested by Abdullah, for political advantage in calming the Sadr movement.

“The king and Maliki saw each other for an hour and a half this afternoon, and Maliki’s meeting Bush tomorrow,” the source said. “The king and Bush were supposed to talk for an hour and a half, but the meeting went longer because of discussion about the Palestinian issue. This was a matter of rescheduling, nothing else. It wasn’t Maliki’s decision.”

The source suggested that Maliki might be claiming that he canceled the meeting as a way to appease hard-line Sadr supporters who have boycotted the government in protest of his meeting with Bush.

The Sadr loyalists denounced Bush as “the biggest representative of evil in the world” and his meeting with Maliki as a “provocation and insult to the feelings of the Iraqi people.”

Other Iraqi politicians, however, dismissed the gesture as political posturing aimed at Sadr’s militant base, millions of mostly impoverished Shiites in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

The boycott appears to fall short of Sadr’s threat last week to withdraw from the government.

His movement controls 30 seats in parliament and several ministries, enough to topple the prime minister if they were to quit the government.

All told, a day that the White House had hoped might showcase Bush taking charge in Iraq just weeks after voters rebuked his policies turned ugly for the administration.

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The internal memo, written Nov. 8 by national security advisor Stephen Hadley, hinted at rising tensions between Washington and Baghdad.

“His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change,” the memo says of Maliki, according to a text posted on the New York Times website. “But 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 disclosure of Hadley’s memo was potentially more troublesome because it appeared to contrast with what Hadley had said as recently as Tuesday: that Maliki’s government was “doing pretty well in a very difficult situation.”

Administration officials said the memo was a “hard look, a probing look” at the conditions in Iraq but should not be interpreted as a criticism of Maliki.

“The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki, and the administration is working with the prime minister to improve his capabilities in terms of dealing with the fundamental challenges in Iraq,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

The memo was drafted about a week after Hadley visited Baghdad and the day after Republicans suffered sweeping losses in congressional elections dominated by public dissatisfaction with Bush’s policies in Iraq.

The memo also suggests urging Saudi Arabia to “take a leadership role in supporting Iraq by using its influence to move Sunni populations in Iraq out of violence into politics, to cut off any public or private funding provided to the insurgents or death squads from the region and to lean on Syria to terminate its support for Baathists [followers of Saddam Hussein] and insurgent leaders.”

The mention of Saudi Arabia could explain why Vice President Dick Cheney paid a surprise visit to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last week for what Hadley called a “very confidential conversation.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

moore1@latimes.com

Wallsten reported from Amman and Moore from Baghdad. Special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman contributed to this report.


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