DEB RIECHMANN Associated Press Writer
AMMAN, Jordan President Bush today sought to strengthen Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki’s ability to quell rising violence in Iraq amid U.S. doubts about his capacity to control sectarian warfare. Under pressure to find a new blueprint for Iraq, Bush flew here from a NATO summit in Latvia for a summit with al-Maliki. The president was expected to ask the embattled Iraqi prime minister how best to train Iraqi forces faster so they can shoulder more responsibility for halting the sectarian violence and, specifically, mending a gaping Sunni-Shiite divide. The two-day summit was beginning even as a top White House adviser raised doubts about al-Maliki’s ability to halt escalating sectarian violence in Iraq, where U.S. involvement now exceeds the length of America’s participation in World War II. “We will discuss the situation on the ground in his country, our ongoing efforts to transfer more responsibility to the Iraqi security forces, and the responsibility of other nations in the region to support the security and stability of Iraq,” Bush said Tuesday at the NATO summit. “We’ll continue to be flexible, and we’ll make the changes necessary to succeed. But there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete,” he said. Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers and cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suspended their participation in the parliament and government in protest over al-Maliki’s summit with Bush. In Syria, President Bashar Assad said his country will continue to challenge U.S. efforts to exert control over the Middle East. The White House has avoided saying that Bush will be pressuring al-Maliki at the meeting to do more to stop the bloodshed. National security adviser Stephen Hadley says the Iraqi prime minister pushes himself and that Bush will be listening to al-Maliki’s ideas, not imposing plans on him. But in a classified Nov. 8 memo following his Oct. 30 trip to Baghdad, Hadley expressed serious doubts about whether al-Maliki had the capacity to control the sectarian violence in Iraq, and recommended steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader’s position, The New York Times reported in today’s editions. “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 action,” the memo said. The White House did not dispute the accuracy of the memo, but a senior administration official said the document, taken as a whole, it is an expression of support for al-Maliki. “You have a constant reiteration of the importance of strengthening the Maliki government, the need to work with him, to augment his capabilities,” the official said. He added that Bush and Maliki have a “personal relationship” that allows them to “talk candidly about the challenges.” Another official, also speaking anonymously because of the classified nature of the memo, said it was not “a slap in the face, but it’s, How do we grow his capability.’” “The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki, and also the administration is working with the prime minister to improve his capabilities,” Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, adding that Maliki “has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges.” Jordan’s King Abdullah, who is hosting the meetings, has warned that unless bold steps are taken posthaste, the new year could dawn with three civil wars in the Mideast in Lebanon, between the Palestinians and Israelis and in Iraq. He says the fighting in Iraq amounts to a civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites, but Bush chooses to characterize it differently. “No question it’s tough,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented, in my opinion, because of these attacks by al-Qaida, causing people to seek reprisal.” His meeting with al-Maliki is part of a new flurry of diplomacy the administration has undertaken across the Middle East. Hadley’s memo suggests that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hold a meeting for Iraq and its neighbors in the region early next month. After the Bush-al-Maliki summit, Rice is staying behind in the region for talks with Palestinian, and possibly, Israeli leaders, who agreed last weekend on a ceasefire to end five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip. Hadley suggested in his memo the United States could step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq. Hadley said Saudi Arabia could use its influence to move Sunni populations in Iraq out of violence and into politics, cut off any public or private funding provided to the insurgents or death squads from the region and lean on Syria to terminate its support for Baathists and insurgent leaders. Bush is regaining his footing on the world stage after the November election when Democrats seized the reins of both the House and Senate. The election was largely viewed as a referendum on the war, and the day after, Bush announced that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was stepping down from his post. The debate over Iraq is not distracting NATO from its mission to keep Afghanistan stable, said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. NATO allies at the summit in Latvia made clear they do not want the U.S.-led war in Iraq to fail, but they are not “importing that debate” into their own work, Fried said.