Bush summit with Iraqi leader ended before it began

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The cancellation came after the disclosure of a critical memo.

AMMAN, Jordan -- By the time President Bush's long motorcade roared up the private road to King Abdullah II's hillside palace, the Iraqi prime minister's motorcade had already roared down it.

So much for the first of two high-expectation meetings between Bush and Nouri al-Maliki.

Accounts varied on who canceled Wednesday's three-way meeting -- and why.

But it was generally viewed as a bad omen for efforts to find a new strategy for controlling spiraling violence in Iraq.

The cancellation came on the same day as disclosure of a classified White House document critical of Maliki and a political boycott in Baghdad protesting his attendance.

Instead of two days of talks, Bush and al-Maliki will have breakfast and a single meeting followed by a news conference this morning, the White House said.

The abrupt change was an almost unheard development in the high-level diplomatic circles of a U.S. president, a king and a prime minister. There was confusion -- and conflicting explanations -- about what happened.

Bush had been scheduled to meet with al-Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday night, and had rearranged his schedule to be in Amman for both days for talks.

The cancellation was not announced until Bush had already come to Raghadan Palace and posed for photographs alone with the king.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that the delay was a snub by al-Maliki directed at Bush or was related to the leak of a memo written by White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley questioning the prime minister's capacity for controlling violence in Iraq.

"Absolutely not," Bartlett said." He said the king and the prime minister had met before Bush arrived from a NATO summit in Latvia. "That negated the purpose to meet tonight together in a trilateral setting."

A senior administration official, who spoke with U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, basically echoed Bartlett's account.

The Jordanians and the Iraqis jointly decided it was not the best use of time because they both would be seeing the president separately, said the official.

Members of the Jordanian and Iraqi delegations contacted Khalilzad, who called Air Force One and spoke with Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, giving them a heads-up, the official said.

However, Redha Jawad Taqi, a senior aide of top Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim who also was in Amman, said the Iraqis balked at the three-way meeting after learning the king wanted to broaden the talks to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the prime minister had been reluctant to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want "a third party" involved in talks about subjects specific to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.

With al-Maliki already gone from the palace, Bush had an abbreviated meeting and dinner with the king before heading early to his hotel.

Bartlett said that Wednesday night's three-way meeting had always been planned as "more of a social meeting" and that Bush and Maliki on today would have a "robust" meeting on their own.

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. There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and Bush is under unrelenting pressure from Democrats and many Republicans to start bringing them home.

Some analysts suggested that the memo might actually help more than damage al-Maliki, showing distance between him and Bush.

Jon Alterman, former special assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the memo's doubts about al-Maliki "seemed calculated to steel his spine."

"This memo reads to me more like a memo to Prime Minister al-Maliki than to President Bush," said Alterman, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It has his entire to-do list as well as a list of what he'll get if he agrees."

In Washington, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called on Bush to appoint a high-ranking special envoy to work with the Iraqi government on disbanding militias, including all Iraq's factions in the nation's political process and equitably distributing resources such as oil revenue.

"Steps have to be taken now," he said.

Bush's 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 Rice should hold a meeting for Iraq and its neighbors in the region early next month and also that the U.S. could step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to help. It was written just weeks before Secretary of State Dick Cheney was dispatched to Saudi Arabia.

Senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the document is still classified even though published, said that many of the concerns raised by Hadley have been or are being rectified in the month that has passed since his trip to Baghdad.

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