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.
"You have one shot at dealing with the king," one senior official said.
Abdullah had made clear that he planned to use his own meeting with Bush to push for a renewed U.S. drive to address the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which the king has described as the "core" issue in the region. White House aides said the king pressed Bush during a dinner meeting Wednesday to move faster to resolve the so-far intractable problem.
After the briefing, another senior official returned to the press center with more details about the cancellation, saying that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had received word in the afternoon from the Jordanians and the Iraqis that there was no need for a three-way meeting. Khalilzad called Air Force One, on its way to Amman from Latvia, with the news. This official said Bush concurred.
Administration officials insisted that the president maintains full confidence in Maliki, despite the bluntly worded Nov. 8 memo by Hadley raising pointed doubts about the prime minister's ability to curb sectarian violence.
"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," Hadley wrote. "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."
Administration officials would not discuss the memo on the record, saying it remains classified despite its publication. One senior official said that it was appropriate for Hadley, who visited Baghdad and met with Maliki several weeks ago, to raise "probing questions" about the government but that the memo did not constitute a "summary judgment" about the current Iraqi government.
Although the memo suggests several alternatives for the lack of progress by Maliki, the official said the White House has concluded that the main problem with Maliki is a "capability" issue. He said a focus of the Bush-Maliki sessions would be: "How do we increase his capability to turn his good intentions, as described in this memo, into concrete action?"
At the Pentagon, an official speaking on condition of anonymity said the U.S. battalions to be shifted to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq would include about 1,600 soldiers from an Army brigade equipped with advanced Stryker armored vehicles. The unit, now in the northern city of Mosul, would replace departing troops from the Alaska-based 172nd Stryker Brigade.
Pace, the Joint Chiefs chairman, acknowledged that the U.S. military fell short last summer when it attempted to quell spiraling sectarian fighting in Baghdad with a significant increase in U.S. and Iraqi forces. Instead, fighting in the capital between Shiite and Sunni Muslims has soared to new extremes.
"The amount of violence in Baghdad . . . right now is not where we want to be," Pace said. "The impact of those increases has not been what we wanted it to be." Pace, however, said Iraq is not in a state of civil war because its government and security forces are "functioning."
He emphasized that Casey and Iraqi leaders have identified more Iraqi units to move to Baghdad from elsewhere in the country. But he acknowledged that this process is hampered by the sectarian and parochial nature of many military units.
"There are some units around Iraq that, if moved to Baghdad, would not be helpful," Pace said. "If a Sunni unit somewhere else in Iraq moved into a Shia neighborhood, or a Shia unit . . . moved into a Sunni neighborhood," he said, that "is not going to help the problem." Moreover, commanders want to avoid creating a regional security vacuum by moving Iraqi troops to Baghdad, he said.
Pace denied that there are any immediate plans to pull U.S. troops wholesale out of the volatile western province of Anbar and send them to Baghdad, leaving the province -- U.S. commanders call it a Sunni insurgent stronghold -- in the hands of Iraqi forces. "Why would we want to forfeit any part of Iraq to the enemy? We don't," he said. But he said the goal "eventually" was to transfer security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.
Pace said he is considering further U.S. troop increases in Iraq among a range of options as he reviews military strategy there, but he acknowledged the stress that would inflict on American ground forces. "If you determine to surge more today, you are taking it out of your rotation base and, therefore, using it today and not having it available for tomorrow," he said. "It's pure math."
Tyson reported from Washington. Staff writers Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Baghdad contributed to this report.