Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Thursday that his country's forces would be able to assume security command by June 2007 — which could allow the United States to start withdrawing its troops.
"I cannot answer on behalf of the U.S. administration but I can tell you that from our side our forces will be ready by June 2007," Maliki told ABC television after meeting President Bush on Thursday in Jordan.
Maliki was replying to a question about whether U.S. troops could start withdrawing at that time.
Speeding up the handover
Bush pledged Thursday that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq to strengthen the authority of embattled prime minister and said the two agreed to speed a turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces.
“One of his frustrations with me is that he believes that we’ve been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people,” Bush said. “Today we had a meeting that will accelerate the capacity for the prime minister to do the hard work necessary to help stop this violence.”
The two also agreed in high-stakes talks here Thursday that Iraq should not be partitioned into separate, semiautonomous zones.
“The prime minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want, and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence,” Bush said after he and the Iraqi prime minister met for nearly two and a half hours.
"I agree," Bush said.
Thursday's talks coincided with reports that the Iraq Study Group will recommend that the U.S. military shift from combat to a support role in Iraq, and will call for a regional conference that could lead to direct U.S. talks with Iran and Syria, both accused by Washington of fomenting violence in their neighbor.
A source familiar with the deliberations of the independent, bipartisan group told Reuters that the idea was for U.S. combat forces to pull back to bases in Iraq and in the region over the next year or so. “It’s basically a redeployment,” the source said.
The panel is to present its report to Bush on Dec. 6.
A role for Iraq's neighbors?
While Bush continued to reject drawing Iran into helping Iraq in its struggle for peace, al-Maliki left the door open for countries like Iran and Syria to play a part.
“We are ready to cooperate with everybody who believes that the need to cooperate with the national unity government, especially our neighbors,” al-Maliki said.
He said that “Iraq is for Iraqis and its borders will be sound.”
The president also acknowledged the pressure at home for the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawals but he said, “We’ll be in Iraq until the job is complete, at the request of a sovereign government elected by the people.”
He said the United States — which now has about 140,000 troops in Iraq —will stay “to get the job done so long as the government wants us there.”
Bush said he wanted to begin troop withdrawals “as soon as possible. But I’m a realist because I understand how tough it is inside of Iraq.”
Request to disband militia
Later Thursday, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed al-Maliki to disband a heavily armed Shiite militia blamed for much of the country's sectarian violence and were told by al-Maliki that controlling the group was no "big deal."
A senior al-Maliki aide who attended Thursday's talks said the Iraqi leader presented Bush a blueprint for the equipping and training of Iraqi security forces. The aide, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the information, declined to give details of the plan.
Bush and Rice repeatedly probed al-Maliki on his plans to deal with the Mahdi Army militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the aide said. The Iraqi prime minister was noncommittal, though he did call on lawmakers and cabinet ministers loyal to al-Sadr to end their boycott of the parliament and government.
"It is not a big problem and we will find a solution for it," the official quoted al-Maliki as telling Bush.
Al-Sadr is a key al-Maliki political backer and the prime minister has regularly sidestepped U.S. demands that the cleric's militia be disbanded.
Unusual meeting cancellation
Bush and al-Maliki had been set to start meeting on Wednesday, but that opening session was canceled following disclosure of U.S. doubts about the Iraqi leader’s capabilities and a Baghdad protest of his attendance.
But any tension over that stunning turn of events was not apparent when the leaders appeared together before reporters. “He’s a strong leader who wants a free and democratic Iraq to succeed,” Bush said.
The abrupt cancellation of Wednesday’s opening session was an almost unheard-of development in the high-level diplomatic circles of a U.S. president, a king and a prime minister. Confusion — and conflicting explanations — ensued.
Bush had been scheduled to participate in a three-way session with al-Maliki and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, rearranging his overseas itinerary to be in Amman for both days for talks aimed at reducing the spiral of violence in Iraq.
The last-minute scrub of those talks was not announced until Bush was inside Raghadan Palace and had posed for photographs alone with the king.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that the delay was a snub by al-Maliki directed at Bush or was related to the leak of a memo written by White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley questioning the prime minister’s capacity for controlling violence in Iraq.
‘There is no problem’
The Jordanians and the Iraqis jointly decided it was not the best use of time because they both would be seeing the president separately, the official said.
“There is no problem,” al-Maliki insisted at the news conference with Bush.
Two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the prime minister had been reluctant to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want “a third party” involved in talks about subjects specific to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.
The cancellation came after the disclosure of a classified White House memo, written Nov. 8 by Hadley. In one particularly harsh section, Hadley asserted: “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 did not dispute the leaked account. But they said that, on balance, the document was supportive of the Iraqi leader and generally portrayed him as well-meaning.
More U.S. troops to Baghdad?
The memo recommended steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader’s position, including possibly sending more troops to defend Baghdad and providing monetary support for moderate political candidates for Iraq’s parliament.
The Iraqi prime minister also faced political turmoil at home about the summit.
Thirty Iraqi lawmakers and five cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they were boycotting Parliament and the government to protest al-Maliki’s presence at the summit.
Some analysts suggested that, by showing distance between al-Maliki and Bush, the memo might actually help the Iraqi leader more than damage him.
Bush’s meeting with al-Maliki was part of a new flurry of diplomacy the administration has undertaken across the Middle East. Hadley’s memo suggests that Secretary of State Rice should hold a meeting for Iraq and its neighbors in the region early next month and also that the United States could step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to help. It was written just weeks before Vice President Dick Cheney was dispatched to Saudi Arabia.