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Bush Rejects Troop Reductions, Endorses Maliki
"I do not talk about one side or the other," he said. "I'm talking about a state; I'm talking about law; I'm talking about commitments. And this should apply to all the partners who have chosen to participate in the political process."
According to Iraqi sources familiar with the meetings, Bush did not press Maliki to take stronger action against Sadr or the Shiite militias, which U.S. commanders in Baghdad have repeatedly called the principal impediment to restoring order in Iraq.
"There was really no pressure," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki who was present during the meeting. "Did he say to the prime minister, 'You have to do this and do that'? I didn't hear any of that."
Rikabi said the two leaders did not "specifically discuss Sadr" but spoke in general terms about the militias, the security of the country and the political conditions.
Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd who is an influential member of Iraq's parliament, said that Bush told Maliki that U.S. forces would deal with al-Qaeda and that Iraqis were responsible for tamping down the Shiite militias and sectarian violence. But he didn't push too hard, said Othman, who said he was basing his information on conversations he had with people who were in the meeting.
Othman said that he thought Sadr's decision to launch a boycott of parliament sent a signal that Maliki was under a lot of domestic pressure and that pushing Maliki too hard on Sadr and the Mahdi Army might have put him under even more pressure.
"That's why he didn't press for that," Othman said.
A senior U.S. official told reporters that Bush and Maliki did discuss Sadr during the summit, in the context of a larger conversation about "using force to address, where necessary, elements operating outside the rule of law."
The official, who could not be named under ground rules set by the White House, said Maliki was fully aware of the need to confront militias. "He recognizes this is a big challenge for his government and one that his government must take on and succeed in if he is to be successful," the official said.
Bush and his aides said a major topic during Thursday's meeting was speeding the training of Iraqi security forces. Bush and Maliki heard from a committee of senior officials from both countries who have been looking for ways to accelerate the transfer of authority over about 140,000 Iraqi soldiers from a joint command-and-control arrangement between Maliki and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, to complete Iraqi oversight. No timetable was set.
"One of his frustrations with me is that he believes we've been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people," Bush said before boarding Air Force One for the flight home. "Our goal is to ensure that the prime minister has more capable forces under his control so his government can fight the terrorists and the death squads, and provide security and stability in his country."
Thursday's meeting was the third face-to-face session between the two leaders. Administration officials say they have been disappointed so far by results from the Maliki government, yet Bush portrayed himself as having nothing but confidence that Maliki can ultimately get results with more help from the United States.
"He's been in power for six months, and I've been able to watch a leader emerge," Bush said, praising Maliki's courage and his desire to take more responsibility from U.S.-led forces. "I'm talking to the man face-to-face, and he says that he understands that a unified government, a pluralistic society, is important to success. And he's making hard decisions to achieve that."
Rikabi, Maliki's adviser, said the prime minister took Bush's expressions of support as a vote of confidence. "It was very positive," Rikabi added, referring to the meeting. "The prime minister and all the delegation returned back to Baghdad very satisfied."
Sunni legislators in Baghdad, however, said they were disappointed by the outcome of the meeting and had expected Bush to take a stronger stand.
"We heard more support for this government from the Bush administration," said Saleh al-Mutlak, leader of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the second-largest Sunni Arab party in Iraq's parliament. "It's a support for failure."
Raghavan reported from Baghdad.