With pressure growing on both men to stabilize Iraq, President Bush called Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Monday to offer a new show of confidence on the anniversary of Maliki taking office.
The phone call came as Bush faced growing political unrest at home 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 Monday, Bush said “an important moment” in the Iraq war would come in September, when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, 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, at the direction of the defense minister, has begun to prepare options in case of a sudden U.S. exit, it was announced Monday.
Bush has spoken frequently with 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 call Monday, placed from the president’s Texas ranch where he was wrapping up a weekend visit, demonstrated anew the degree to which Bush needs Maliki to rein in the nation’s fractious politics.
Bush interrupted a series of meetings, held Sunday and Monday with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to speak with Maliki.
During the call, Bush “reaffirmed his confidence in the prime minister, and noted the courage he has shown during a challenging and difficult year,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said.
“The two leaders discussed the importance of political progress in Iraq and the need to move forward with the key reconciliation initiatives to secure Iraq’s democratic gains,” Fratto said.
The White House spokesman said 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 among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Asked whether Maliki had given Bush any commitments on the oil law and a review of the Iraqi Constitution, another sensitive political issue, Fratto said, “It’s very hard to put a sense of timing on some of these things.”
Failure to win reforms in Iraq has hampered Bush’s efforts to win congressional support for additional funding for U.S. military operations there.
Fratto said such “benchmarks” were “essential for bringing peace and security” to Iraq.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim Mifarji asked the army to prepare options for 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, confirming an Associated Press report. “The military always plans for the worst.”
Mifarji “asked for it two, three weeks ago, just in case,” Abadi said.
Britain already has begun to draw down its forces in southern Iraq. But Abadi stressed that there was “a fundamental need for the coalition to steer us through till the end of the year.”
“That is the bare minimum,” he said, citing the Iraqi army’s significant logistical problems.
The sudden departures of two of Iraq’s most influential leaders, Shiite Muslim politician Abdelaziz Hakim and President Jalal Talabani, to seek medical care abroad have further unsettled the country’s volatile political mix.
Hakim, head of the largest Shiite political party, confirmed Monday that that he was being treated for what aides have described as lung cancer and what he said was a “limited tumor.”
He appeared on Iraqi television to announce that he had gone for treatment to Iran, his home during years of exile during the rule of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Talabani, who is fighting obesity, has checked into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for medical tests, wire reports said. In February, he was rushed to a Jordanian hospital, where doctors said he was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.
The difficulties faced by the Iraqi government were underscored by a series of attacks Monday 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 Monday night, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
In other violence reported Monday, 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 Baqubah, capital of strife-torn Diyala province, a religiously mixed region that has suffered escalating violence since U.S. and Iraqi forces began a clampdown in Baghdad three months ago.
In southern Iraq, gunmen fired on a British resupply convoy in Basra, setting an Iraqi-owned fuel tanker ablaze, said Capt. Katie Brown, a British military spokeswoman. Bystanders dragged a burned corpse from the flaming truck and danced around it, wire reports said.
The violence came as thousands of U.S. troops continued to search for three comrades abducted in a May 12 ambush south of Baghdad. Four other U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi soldier were killed in the attack.
Gerstenzang reported from Crawford and Zavis from Baghdad. Times staff writer Ned Parker and special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.