- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki abruptly canceled the first round of face-to-face meetings scheduled here last night with President Bush, just hours after publication of a classified memo from the president’s top security aide that says the Iraqi leader is either “ignorant,” devious or incapable of governing right now.

The White House said the events were not related, said the cancellation was not a snub, and said the two men will have enough time together this morning, when they have a working breakfast and meeting planned.

“No one should read too much into this,” said Dan Bartlett, senior counselor to Mr. Bush.

The meeting had been scheduled to include Mr. Bush, Mr. al-Maliki and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Yesterday evening, though, the meeting was reduced to a one-on-one between the president and the king, who were also scheduled to have dinner later.

The cancellation and the leaked memo by National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley set off a day of “background” briefings by White House officials who refused to be named but tried to explain the ups and downs of diplomacy.

An administration official told reporters Mr. al-Maliki and King Abdullah, after holding their own bilateral talks, decided “they did not feel it was necessary” for Mr. Bush to meet them together. They had Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, call Mr. Bush, flying on Air Force One from Latvia, to tell him they wanted to cancel the meeting. The president agreed, the official said.

The Associated Press quoted Iraqi officials here with Mr. al-Maliki saying the Iraqi leader canceled the meeting because he didn’t want King Abdullah to be a part of U.S.-Iraq discussions.

The president only recently tacked this trip on to the end of his journey to Latvia for the NATO summit, with the White House announcing last week Mr. Bush wanted face-to-face time with Mr. al-Maliki. Mr. Hadley said there “is really no substitute for the two men getting together, sitting across a table and talking face to face.”

But the canceled meetings reduce the amount of face-to-face time substantially.

The memo, obtained by the New York Times and printed in yesterday’s editions, offers a stark assessment of Mr. al-Maliki.

“The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Mr. 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,” Mr. Hadley wrote Nov. 8, after an Oct. 30 trip to Iraq to meet with Mr. al-Maliki.

That third explanation is the administration’s chosen conclusion, said two senior administration officials briefing reporters in Latvia.

“This is an enormously complicated situation for which there is no cookbook answer,” said one of the officials. “There is not summary judgment of Prime Minister Maliki, but instead there is a great deal of respect for the enormity and complexity of the challenge he faces.”

Just how complex was underscored yesterday when Mr. al-Maliki lost part of his governing coalition.

Lawmakers and Cabinet ministers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suspended participation in parliament and the government to protest the meeting, according to wire service reports.

“This visit hijacked the will of the people during days when the sons of Iraq write their destiny with blood and not ink,” the Associated Press quoted lawmakers and ministers saying in a statement which referred to Mr. Bush as a “criminal” and the “world’s biggest evil.”

Meanwhile, the recent upsurge in violence continued, with fighting between coalition troops and insurgents shutting down the city of Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

While Mr. al-Maliki faces fractured support in Iraq, Mr. Bush is facing his own political pressures at home.

The independent Iraq Study Group has announced it will release its recommendations for how to handle the U.S. commitment to Iraq on Monday, and key Democrats now in the majority in Congress are already raising the stakes for the report as a means to force Mr. Bush to change course.

Other top Democrats are calling on Mr. Bush to appoint a special envoy to Iraq to follow up on the specifics Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki discuss today.

“They know what they have to accomplish,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat. “Somehow controlling the militias, somehow developing a more inclusive government, or a government at least who respects the minority rights of the Sunni community, somehow getting public services out to all of the people of Iraq, and it’s got to be done with some type of time limits, a timetable.”

On those points, he seemed to echo much of Mr. Hadley’s classified memo.

The five-page memo lists nine items on which Mr. Hadley says Mr. al-Maliki should take action, including: bringing “his political strategy with Moktada al-Sadr to closure,” diversify his Cabinet and his personal staff to include those who are not Shi’ite allies, expand the Iraqi army over the next nine months, and support renewal of the U.N. mandate for coalition forces to operate in Iraq.

Yesterday the senior administration officials said Mr. al-Maliki has taken steps on at least two of the nine items, including supporting this week’s extension of the U.N. mandate for coalition forces.

They said the bulk of today’s conversations will be about those action items but also said Mr. al-Maliki will have some things he wants the U.S. to work on as well.

“This is not the president dictating terms,” one official said. “Prime Minister Maliki is the sovereign head of state. The president respects that.”

Mr. Hadley in the memo said some steps the United States could take were to have Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hold an “Iraq-plus-neighbors” meeting to try to end Syrian and Iranian meddling, and to step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to cut off funding to insurgents and ask Sunni Muslims in Iraq to stop sectarian violence and join the political process.

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