- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

President Bush yesterday assured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he has no plans to withdraw troops from Iraq and told him there is no truth to rumors that the United States has set a two-month deadline for his government to control sectarian violence.

In a 15-minute phone call initiated by the president, Mr. al-Maliki raised concerns about the rumored timeline, saying such reports undermine confidence in the Iraqi government and inspire terrorists.

“The president underscored his commitment to a democratically elected government of Iraq, encouraging the prime minister to ignore rumors that the United States government was seeking to impose a timeline on the [al-Maliki] government,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

Mr. al-Maliki “said that rumors sometimes can undercut confidence in the government and also its ability to work effectively in fighting terror,” Mr. Snow said. “And the president said, ‘Don’t worry. You still have our full support.’”

The White House did not know where Mr. al-Maliki picked up the rumors, but the prime minister may have been referring to comments by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, who said earlier this month that the United States might have to consider a change of course if the Iraqi government fails to restore order within two or three months.

During the phone call, Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki also discussed suggestions that Iraq be broken into three regions — one each for Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites — as a way to end sectarian violence. But the two leaders rejected such a division.

“I don’t think that’s the right way to go. I think that will increase sectarian violence. I think that will make it more dangerous — and so does [Mr. al-Maliki],” Mr. Bush said yesterday in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel.

“On the point you brought up about dividing the country in three, he rejected that strongly. He thought that was a bad idea. And I agree with him. … Federalism is one thing, in other words, giving a balance between regional government and central government, but dividing is basically saying there will be three autonomous regions, will create, Bill, a situation where Sunnis and Sunni nations and Sunni radicals will be competing against Shia radicals.

“The Kurds will then create problems for Turkey and Syria. And you’ve got a bigger mess than we have at this point in time, which I believe is going to be solved,” he said.

Mr. Bush also used the phone call to press the prime minister, telling him “we expect you to make tough political decisions to move forward. And he assured me he would continue to make tough political decisions necessary to move forward.”

The president also told Mr. al-Maliki that he supports efforts to go after militias and terrorists through political, economic and military means, Mr. Snow said. In turn, Mr. al-Maliki “debunked this notion that he’s not going to go after these criminal elements and/or militias that are killing innocent people,” Mr. Bush said on Fox. “He knows he’s got to provide the security necessary for this country to move forward.”

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