By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 29, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 28 -- President Bush coaxed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki back into a common front with the U.S. administration Saturday, soothing the Iraqi leader in a 50-minute video link-up after a week of missteps and sharp words exposed tensions between the two allies.
Both leaders declared themselves "committed to the partnership" and prepared to work "in every way possible for a stable, democratic Iraq and for victory in the war on terror," the White House said in a statement after the Baghdad-Washington teleconference.
Bush and Maliki also agreed to create a top-level committee to come up with recommendations for speeding up the training of Iraq's security forces, moving ahead on efforts to put Iraq in control of those forces, and making the Iraqi government responsible for the country's security. Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said the recommendations would include timelines.
The proposed commission, which is to include Iraqi government ministers, U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, will be at least the second high-level U.S.-Iraqi commission established here since the summer of 2005 to try to speed up Iraq's takeover of security and the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Since formation of the first panel, sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites has exploded, taking Iraqi civilian casualties this summer to the highest level of the war and helping to push American combat deaths this month to their third-highest figure since U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003.
For the Bush administration, Saturday's accord gave hope of closing an embarrassing rift that broke open just as Bush was trying to show that his much-criticized Iraq policy was adapting to the increasing violence. Congressional elections, just 10 days away, are focused heavily on the unpopular 3 1/2 -year-old war.
Maliki had sought Saturday's talk, aides said, because he was unhappy over what he took as Washington's dictating of terms to his government. The Iraqi leader was intent on showing that Khalilzad "was no L. Paul Bremer," the Associated Press quoted one Maliki aide as saying, referring to the American appointed to run Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion.
The falling-out between the two administrations had its roots in growing U.S. frustration -- expressed privately by American officials -- over what is seen as the slowness of Maliki's roughly five-month-old government to quell both a Sunni Arab insurgency and the even bloodier Shiite-Sunni sectarian struggle.
Feathers were ruffled Tuesday, when Khalilzad held a news conference with Casey to announce what he said were new commitments from Iraq's government on timelines and reforms meant to speed the day when U.S. troops could leave.
Maliki angrily denied any such commitment in a news conference the next day, and he followed up with interviews stressing that he and his government were independent of the United States.
Point made, White House spokesman Tony Snow said after Saturday's videoconference. "He's not America's man in Iraq," Snow told reporters. "The United States is there in a role to assist him. He's the prime minister -- he's the leader of the Iraqi people. He is, in fact, the sovereign leader of Iraq."
Snow said that Bush assured Maliki of continuing U.S. support despite midterm election criticism of the war. "Both leaders understand the political pressures going on. But the president told him: Don't worry about politics in the United States because we are with you, and we are going to be with you," Snow said.
Maliki's spokesman called the statement of U.S. support gratifying.
"The agreement shows there is a strategic alliance between the two countries for fighting terrorist groups and full support between President Bush and his administration to the government of Maliki," Dabbagh said. "It's a clear message to all in Iraq and the world that the administration supports the Maliki cabinet."
The U.S. military on Saturday reported the combat death of a U.S. Marine in Anbar province, raising to 98 the number of U.S. personnel killed in October.
In other violence around Iraq, one person was killed and 35 wounded in Baghdad when a rocket slammed into an outdoor market in the southern neighborhood of Dora.
Police also found 10 bodies of victims of apparent sectarian violence -- seven around Baghdad and three in Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of the capital.
In Kirkuk, 10 armed men stormed the house of a female rights activist, Halima Ahmad Hussein al-Jubouri, and killed her in front of her children, police Capt. Emad Khidir said.
At least 12 other people were reported killed in shootings and bomb attacks nationwide. The number of killings that reach public notice each day is a fraction of that logged by Iraq's morgues and hospitals.
Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.