- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday his country’s security forces will soon take responsibility for defending their country, and he and President Bush, after meeting here, said they have agreed to expand U.S. training of Iraqi forces and to transfer military control faster.

“Today, we made a step toward ‘as soon as possible’ by accelerating the transfer of authorities, military authorities, to the prime minister,” Mr. Bush said during a joint press conference.

For his part, Mr. al-Maliki said that his armed forces “have reached a good level of competency and efficiency to protect Iraq as a country and to protect its people,” according to the translation.

He told ABC News in an interview that his troops will be ready to take full command by June, laying out a timetable by which to measure his government’s progress — something the Bush administration has been reluctant to do.

The men agreed to accelerate training and equipping Iraqi troops, and moving up the timeline for turning over Iraqi divisions to the Iraqi chain of command. They also talked about expanding the Iraqi army and helping the military’s intelligence and logistics capabilities, White House officials said.

Each man faces pressure at home to try to gain control of the situation in Iraq, where sectarian violence escalated last month.

Mr. al-Maliki is trying to manage a coalition government that is facing a boycott by lawmakers allied with Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are protesting yesterday’s meeting with Mr. Bush.

In the U.S., Democrats, who take control of Congress next month, are trying to assert some influence over the president’s Iraq policy. And the independent Iraq Study Group will release recommendations next week that will reportedly call for U.S. troops to shift away from a combat role in Iraq.

The talks took place a day after the New York Times published a classified memo written by Mr. Bush’s top national security aide that questioned whether Mr. al-Maliki is cut out for his job.

The Nov. 8 memo said Mr. al-Maliki is either “ignorant” of the situation on the ground, being deceptive toward the United States about his intentions, or is incapable of turning those intentions into action.

Yesterday the aide, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, said the memo did not come up specifically and did not affect the meeting.

“That’s what I was worried about,” he acknowledged. “But in terms of the body language in the meeting, the candor of the conversation, the relaxed character of the meeting between the two leaders, the great relief to me was that it did not seem to have an effect on the meeting.”

Mr. al-Maliki did cancel a Wednesday night meeting with Mr. Bush and Jordanian King Abdullah II, but Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that was meant to snub the king, not the president. The sources said Mr. al-Maliki did not want to discuss Iraq’s security and internal affairs with the king present.

Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki met in Amman because it was a safe location in the region, but the officials said the Iraqi leader never wanted the meeting to be in Jordan.

Mr. al-Maliki brushed aside a U.S. reporter’s question about the scrubbed meeting.

“There was not part of our agenda a trilateral meeting, so there is no problem,” he said, contradicting the White House, which said a meeting had been scheduled but was canceled by the Iraqis and Jordanians.

It is the third time the two leaders have met in person.

Mr. Bush gave Mr. al-Maliki a vote of confidence, calling him the “right guy” to lead Iraq.

Even so, Mr. al-Maliki appeared stiff and cold toward Mr. Bush as the two men stood at podiums about a dozen feet apart in a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel. While the president was praising Mr. al-Maliki and looking at him during opening remarks, the prime minister stared straight ahead and didn’t acknowledge the compliments.

Later, Mr. Bush asked if they should take more questions from the press and Mr. al-Maliki seemed irked — “We said six questions, now this is the seventh, and this is the eighth. Eight questions,” he said, according to the translator.

Several times during the press conference, Mr. Bush said Mr. al-Maliki told him the U.S. has been holding him back from being able to govern.

“One of the prime minister’s frustrations is, is that he believes we’ve been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Hadley, who was in some of yesterday’s meetings, said this did not mean the Iraqi leader delivered a list of demands or complaints.

Also yesterday, press reports indicated the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan body that has been studying the situation in Iraq, will recommend U.S. troops reduce their role in day-to-day combat in Iraq.

The recommendations will be released officially Wednesday, and Mr. Hadley said he would wait to see what the report says.

The president has said the report is one voice to which he is listening as he decides how to reshape U.S. policy. Mr. Hadley said those decisions should be coming in “weeks rather than months” but could not say exactly when.

At the press conference, Mr. Bush said there are politicians in Washington looking for “some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,” but the president said that is not his focus.

“We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there,” he said.

One key Democrat said he was disappointed by the reported recommendations from the study group.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who will become the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the upcoming report needs to consider some type of arrangement for devolving political power down to lower levels, rather than building a strong central government.

“It would be a fatal mistake to believe we can do that solely by building up a strong central government. That policy has been tried and it has failed because there is no trust within the government, no trust of the government by the people, and no capacity on the part of the government to deliver benefits to Iraqis,” he said.

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