AMMAN, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Jordan for crisis talks with U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday with some in the White House questioning his ability to rescue Iraq from bloody turmoil.
Bush himself is under growing pressure to find a new policy to prevent Iraq dissolving in a maelstrom of sectarian strife and to secure an honourable exit for 140,000 U.S. troops.
Before his talks with Maliki, Bush blamed al Qaeda for the violence and vowed not to pull troops out “before the mission is complete”, rejecting talk that Iraq had plunged into civil war — a term now adopted by several U.S. news outlets.
U.S. misgivings about Maliki’s leadership surfaced in a sometimes scathing memo written by national security adviser Stephen Hadley and published by the New York Times.
Hadley told Bush in the Nov. 8 document that Maliki needed political help and a possible shake-up of his seven-month-old national unity government of hostile factions.
It describes the Iraqi leader as a man who “wanted to be strong but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so”.
The White House said on Wednesday it had confidence in Maliki and wanted to strengthen his position.
Hadley said earlier the United States recognised Maliki had a difficult task, but said a drive by the Iraqi government and U.S.-led forces to impose security in Baghdad had not succeeded. “It has not produced adequate progress in an acceptable time frame,” he told reporters accompanying Bush.
Maliki flew into Amman, safe from Baghdad’s rampant insecurity, several hours before Bush was due to reach the Jordanian capital from a NATO summit in Latvia.
The Iraqi leader is defying a threat by powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to withdraw his radical faction from the fragile Baghdad government if Maliki meets Bush.
Maliki was first due to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah, who is worried like other Sunni Arab leaders about rising Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, especially after the Lebanon war between Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
A Jordanian official said the king would press Maliki to ensure his government treats all communities fairly and reins in Shi’ite death squads targeting Sunnis.
Bush said he and Maliki would discuss transferring more control to Iraqi security forces and “the responsibility of other nations in the region” to support stability in Iraq.
Bush has rejected direct U.S. talks with Iran over helping to stabilise Iraq, saying Tehran must first stop nuclear fuel enrichment. But he said it was up to Baghdad to decide on its relations with neighbouring Iran and Syria, both U.S. foes.
Bush and Maliki were due to meet for a dinner hosted by King Abdullah and for a working breakfast on Thursday.
The meetings were expected to be a give-and-take on how to improve the situation, and “not the president dictating terms,” a U.S. official said. A bold announcement was not expected.
On the eve of the talks, the U.N. Security Council unanimously renewed the mandate of the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq until the end of 2007, at Baghdad’s request.
In the latest violence, the Shi’ite-run Health Ministry building in Baghdad came under machinegun and mortar fire for the second time in a week. The attackers later withdrew.
After last week’s raid on the ministry, a multiple car bomb and mortar attack on Sadr City, stronghold of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, killed more than 200 people in the bloodiest violence since the U.S. invasion.
Bush, under pressure to change course in Iraq after his Republican party lost control of Congress in November elections, is to receive recommendations next month from a bipartisan panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker.
Hadley’s memo said Maliki receives “undoubtedly skewed” information from advisers in his Shi’ite Dawa Party. He seems well-intentioned, “but 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 actions”.