Bush, Maliki Meet After First Talks Are Canceled

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By Michael Abramowitz and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 30, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 30 -- President Bush began consultations Thursday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on how to halt the deterioration of security in his country, after their scheduled opening meeting was canceled Wednesday evening following political turmoil in Baghdad and disclosure of U.S. doubts about Maliki's capabilities.

Iraqi lawmakers and cabinet ministers allied with Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, a bloc that was pivotal in bringing Maliki to power in May, launched a boycott Wednesday of their governmental duties to protest Maliki's decision to meet with Bush. At the same time, relations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments were complicated by the leak of a confidential White House memo suggesting the Bush administration was close to losing confidence in Maliki's ability to deliver results.

At the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday that the U.S. military is bolstering its forces in Baghdad to deal with "unacceptable" levels of violence in Iraq.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace said that the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., is moving "a couple of battalions" to Baghdad from elsewhere in the country and is determining how many troops he can move to the capital without creating gaps in other parts of Iraq. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the battalions would replace units being rotated out of the country.

In addition, the official said, the Joint Chiefs are considering calling up 2,800 troops from four Army Reserve combat engineer battalions and sending them to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in early January. Such a call-up could be politically sensitive, because three of the reserve battalions have already deployed, meaning some soldiers in the units could be involuntarily mobilized for a second time. Under Pentagon policy, that would require the approval of the defense secretary.

As late as Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that the White House was planning to go ahead with a three-way meeting that evening among Bush, Maliki and King Abdullah of Jordan. But when reporters showed up at the palace where the meeting was to take place, they were told by White House counselor Dan Bartlett that the session was off.

Officials said Bush and Maliki's talks Thursday morning would focus on how to strengthen the capacity of the Iraqi government to quell sectarian violence.

White House officials said the cancellation of the opening session had nothing to do with Maliki's political problems at home or the leak of a memo, written for Bush by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, that was published in Wednesday's New York Times.

Bartlett said that Maliki had had a productive meeting with Abdullah on Wednesday and that Bush and Maliki felt "there was not an agenda for the three for a trilateral that they felt was necessary."

"No one should read too much into this," Bartlett said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said that "there's no snub" by Maliki.

Two senior administration officials, at a contentious background briefing with White House reporters who repeatedly challenged their explanation, said all the parties involved believed it would be more productive to have two separate meetings, one on Wednesday between Bush and Abdullah and one on Thursday between Bush and Maliki. They noted that Bush and the king had a variety of issues to discuss, including broader Middle East peace initiatives and the situation in Lebanon.


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