They are unlikely allies -- an athletic, down-home Texan who once owned a baseball team and a soft-spoken Iraqi family doctor who spent almost a decade of exile in Iran. George Bush, a born-again Christian, envisioned a secular new Iraq. Ibrahim Jafari, a devout Shiite, wants Islam enshrined in his nation's constitution.
But the legacies of the U.S. and Iraqi leaders may now depend on how much they can achieve together over the next six months. Today they will meet at the White House to map out a joint strategy for the final phase of Iraq's transition. And for all their differences, they sound increasingly alike, from charting the political future in a new constitution to silencing an insurgency.
The first step in their effort is to beat back dire predictions and calls for an early U.S. withdrawal.
In an interview, Jafari insisted yesterday that recent U.S.-Iraq offensives have improved security "dramatically," echoing the administration's prediction that insurgency is in its death throes. He also said it would be a serious mistake to designate a specific date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"We would like to see the withdrawal of American forces as quickly as possible, because the presence of any foreign troops on our land means there is a weakness that we cannot by ourselves control the security situation," Jafari told Washington Post editors and reporters. But a deadline would "play into the hands of the terrorists."
He instead called for accelerating the training of Iraqi troops, including a role for nations not part of the United States-led military coalition.
"We strongly prefer an increase in quality of Iraqi forces, increase in number, increase in efficiency, increase in the effectiveness of tactics they use, as well as increase in equipment . . . anything that will raise efficiency of Iraqi forces is something that will be very welcomed because it will allow other forces, especially American forces, to withdraw," he said.
With a self-assured firmness, Jafari said Iraqis had proved they were willing to "sacrifice anything" for democracy when 8.5 million risked their lives to vote last January. And despite suicide bombings in Baghdad yesterday, he said car bombings have dropped from 12 to 14 a day to one a day or every other day. Growing support from Iraqis has generated new public cooperation and information -- "more than we can handle," he added. Tribes are now helpful in identifying terrorists, a word he repeatedly used, rejecting the term "insurgent."
"So why, when a few bands of criminals choose soft targets and blow up marketplaces and schools and hospitals, are we threatened and terrorized and feel victims to this? Why do we allow ourselves held captives or hostage?" he said. "Soldiers who have died have died for a worthy cause." After meetings with Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, Jafari stopped last night at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to meet injured U.S. troops.
The other two keys to ending the insurgency are securing Iraq's six borders, particularly with Syria, and activating a new judiciary so terrorists can be held to account, he said.
Jafari's remarks come as Bush has been told privately by U.S. generals this week that Iraq's military is growing stronger and could allow U.S. troops to start pulling out next year.
Aides say Bush intends to begin speaking more forcefully about Iraq's transition and the progress in crafting a new government from scratch. He plans a major speech Tuesday to mark the one-year anniversary of Iraq's sovereignty. It will emphasize the importance of Jafari's success in meeting the six-month deadlines for a constitution, national referendum and elections for a permanent government, aides said.
With just seven weeks until a constitution is due, Jafari also insisted that the Iraqis will make the deadline even though nothing has yet been written. "We know there are challenges and we know there are difficulties, but certainly the difficulties in writing a constitution will be not as severe or as intense as they were during the elections . . . in putting together the government," he said in the interview with The Post.
The Iraqi and U.S. optimism comes in the face of growing concern among many analysts, and even some U.S. officials, about the tight timing -- and the prospect of extending the deadline until mid-2006. A six-month delay is allowed under Iraq's temporary law, but experts fear it could fuel public disillusionment and the insurgency.
"They won't meet the deadline. They took three months to form a government and they've barely managed to form a constitutional committee, which can't meet as there's no water or electricity in the parliament's building. It's very symbolic," said Juan R.I. Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.
There are also underlying tensions in the relationship, analysts say. Top U.S. officials had hoped interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who was handpicked by U.S. and United Nations officials to lead the second phase of the transition last year, would stay in the job, said Larry Diamond, who served in the U.S.-occupation government and is author of "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq." Despite the fact both men are deeply religious, they see a different role for religion in Iraq.
Yet as they approach the last pivotal stage, Bush and Jafari share common political tactics. "Both of these guys are survivors and winners in their own political game. Bush was in the political wilderness for a long time and came back strong, and so did Jafari," Cole said. "Both are savvy operators and wouldn't be where they are without it."
President Bush plans a speech Tuesday to mark anniversary.