By Michael Abramowitz and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 1, 2006
AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 30 -- President Bush on Thursday dismissed calls for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq as unrealistic, saying American forces would "stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."
Speaking after a summit here with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush also offered a strong endorsement of the embattled leader, calling him "the right guy for Iraq."
The two men met for about two hours in the Jordanian capital, discussing how to crack down on the sectarian violence ravaging Iraq and what could be done to speed the turnover of security responsibilities from U.S.-led foreign troops to Iraqi forces.
In the news conference that followed, Bush sought to preempt a growing clamor to start a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a proposed policy shift that has gained traction as a result of the Nov. 7 congressional elections and that is expected to be endorsed by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). The United States has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq.
Although the president was not asked directly about the panel's recommendations, which will be made public next week but which were partially leaked to reporters late Wednesday, he did say that "this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever."
Later, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush would start making changes in his Iraq policy soon after receiving the study group's recommendations and the reports of other high-level review panels. "There is a real sense of urgency, but there is not a sense of panic," Hadley said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Maliki, meanwhile, declared that he is moving to disarm militias in Iraq and expects government forces to assume full control of security duties by June.
"I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready, to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June, our forces will be ready," Maliki said in an interview with ABC News after his meeting with Bush.
Asked whether he would disarm militias such as the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, an anti-American Shiite cleric, Maliki, himself a Shiite, said: "Definitely. And the government is doing that with all militias, with no exception. There will be only the arms for government troops."
Sadr is seen as perhaps the single most powerful political leader in Iraq. The Mahdi Army is the largest and most violent of Iraq's private Shiite militias, and Sadr's supporters make up one of the biggest blocs in the Iraqi parliament. Although the Sadr bloc played a pivotal role in making Maliki prime minister, its members walked out of parliament and the cabinet on Wednesday in protest of Maliki's meeting with Bush.
During their news conference, Bush declined to answer directly a question about whether he urged Maliki to distance himself from Sadr. Bush said that after he and Maliki discussed the "political situation" in Iraq, he came away "reassured" by the prime minister's determination to hold to account those who break the law -- "whether those people be criminals, al-Qaeda, militia, whoever."
Asked whether he would break with Sadr, Maliki did not answer directly, noting that Sadr's faction is only one part of his ruling coalition and that all those participating in the government bear responsibilities.
"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.