WASHINGTON, AP -President Bush retains confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki despite the failure of the Shiite politician’s signature effort to improve security in Iraq’s bloody capital, the White House said as Bush prepared to host the new leader.
Yet with the violence in Baghdad continuing to rage, U.S. officials said the U.S. and Iraq were moving thousands of troops into the city from other parts of the country.
Al-Maliki’s six-week old plan to enhance security in Baghdad, which Bush praised on his surprise visit to the city on June 13, clearly is not working, and the two leaders probably will discuss a substitute when they meet Tuesday, White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
“I think that’s under consideration,” Snow said.
Al-Maliki was making his first visit to Washington as the first democratically elected prime minister since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The bloodletting in Baghdad and the current fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon were at the top of his agenda with Bush.
Snow answered “yes” when asked whether Bush still was confident that al-Maliki could succeed.
Snow did not give details of the new security plan for Baghdad, but other U.S. officials said it entailed bringing more U.S. troops into the capital from outside the city.
A senior Defense Department official said the remainder of a backup force that had been stationed in Kuwait also was heading into Iraq. Some U.S. military police companies were being shifted to Baghdad, involving between 500-1,000 troops, as well as a cavalry squadron and a battalion of field artillery troops, said the official, who requested anonymity because the plans yet to be made public.
In addition, the official said, at least two Iraqi military brigades will be brought into Baghdad. Forces are being shifted to meet changing security demands in different neighborhoods “to face the enemy where we think he is,” the official said.
There are generally about 3,500 troops in a brigade, and more than 800 in a battalion. Currently about 30,000 of the 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are in Baghdad.
Lebanon also was on al-Maliki’s mind. In London on Monday, he said he feared the possible broader consequences of the two-week-old Israeli-Hezbollah fighting.
“I am afraid that what’s going on in Lebanon will be a great push towards fundamentalism,” al-Maliki said during a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The fighting has killed nearly 400, most of them Lebanese civilians.
Al-Maliki also told BBC radio that Iraq would not collapse into civil war.
“There is a sectarian issue, but the political leaders … are working on putting an end to” it, al-Maliki said. “Civil war will not happen to Iraq.” He confirmed U.N. data showing an average of 100 civilians a day were killed in May and June.
American troops are stepping up operations in the Baghdad area to combat death squads and tamp down the violence threatening the new unity government, a U.S. general said Monday.
U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted 19 operations last week targeting death squads, U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters. All but two were in Baghdad, he said.
“Clearly Baghdad is the center that everybody is fighting for,” Caldwell said in Baghdad. “We will do whatever it takes to bring security to Baghdad.”
The Baghdad area recorded an average of 34 major bombings and shootings for the week ending July 13, the U.S. military said. That was up 40 percent from the daily average of 24 registered between June 14 and July 13.
U.S. officials believe control of Baghdad — the political, cultural, transport and economic hub of the country — will determine the future of Iraq. But the city’s religiously mixed communities have become the focus of sectarian violence.
Iraq’s army and police, which are heavily Shiite, have had trouble winning the trust of residents of majority Sunni neighborhoods. Al-Maliki’s plans for curfews and other measures have had no lasting effect.
The Bush administration is pinning its hopes for a relatively swift withdrawal of most U.S. forces on the political and military success of the multiethnic government al-Maliki heads. Al-Maliki was the compromise choice to lead the government this spring after months of political infighting that frustrated the Bush administration and sapped political support among Iraqis.
The war is increasingly unpopular in the United States, weighing down the president’s poll numbers and causing headaches for the White House as it looks to midterm congressional elections this fall.
At least 2,565 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. Far larger numbers of Iraqis have died, including hundreds in tit-for-tat sectarian killings in Baghdad.
Many of the death squads are believed to be associated with either Sunni or Shiite armed groups, targeting members of the rival sect as part of a struggle for power between the country’s two major religious communities.
The rise in sectarian violence has shifted attention away from the Sunni-led insurgency most active in the western Anbar province to Baghdad, a city of 6 million people with large communities of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.