Iraqi Leader to Visit Bush; Talks to Focus on Violence

By Michael Abramowitz and Andy Mosher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 23, 2006

WACO, Tex., July 22 -- The last time President Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, White House officials touted a new security plan for Baghdad as one of the centerpieces of Iraq's fledgling national unity government.

Five weeks later, even the White House concedes that the plan has not worked as hoped: Car bombs, hidden explosives and ambushes by gunmen have killed scores of Iraqis in the capital.

The escalating sectarian violence, perhaps the biggest threat to the U.S. enterprise in Iraq, will take center stage this week when Bush and Maliki meet at the White House. Administration officials say the two men will discuss new steps to curb the violence, including the possible redeployment of more U.S. troops to the capital, and Bush will urge Maliki to rally Iraqis against sectarianism.

"It is one of the most serious problems that this government has to deal with," said a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The official said the White House remains hopeful that the fledgling government can address it: "You see its leadership is trying to come together and find tangible ways, rhetorical ways, symbolic ways of underscoring the importance of maintaining Iraq at the expense of empowering different sectarian groups."

Maliki made it clear Saturday that the Sunni Arab insurgency and sectarian violence would constitute the two leaders' main topic of discussion. "The most important file we are taking is that of security," Maliki said at a news conference in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

Maliki pointed out that his trip to the United States had been scheduled long before last week, one of the bloodiest this year in Iraq. He emphasized the importance of having more Iraqi forces take over responsibility for security, saying he and Bush will "dot the i's and cross the t's concerning building our forces."

While the administration has adopted a more cautious tone toward events in Iraq, skepticism is growing outside the White House.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met recently with Maliki in Iraq and came away unsure whether the new prime minister would crack down, as promised, on Shiite militia forces and guarantee the minority Sunni Arab community more of a stake in the government.

"I am not at all sure he is committed to a Sunni buy-in and a total purging of the military and the police of sectarian death squads," Biden said.

"It's been hard to get any traction for Maliki and the government," said Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who joined Biden in meeting with the prime minister. "There is not a lot of institutional capacity."

The administration has much invested in the success of Maliki, the first leader since the fall of Saddam Hussein who officials believe has the toughness, political savvy and broad political support to help turn the tide in Iraq.

The security plan for Baghdad was his administration's first major initiative. It imposed dusk-to-dawn curfews, a ban on guns in the streets, and more military and police patrols and checkpoints.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company