Bush and Iraqi prime minister to meet in Amman, Jordan

Wednesday, November 22nd 2006, 6:12 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Facing strong disapproval of his war strategy, President Bush will go to the Middle East for a summit with Iraq's prime minister next week to discuss how to speed up the slow transfer of security responsibilities to Baghdad's control.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley said the two days of talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were part of a process allowing Bush to hear from a variety of sources as he tries to ``make up his mind about how the best way is to proceed in Iraq.''

Already scheduled to be in Europe for a NATO summit, Bush will fly from Latvia to Amman, Jordan, for talks Wednesday and Thursday with al-Maliki. The surprise meeting was announced on Air Force One as Bush flew home to Washington from an eight-day trip to Asia and an overnight stop in Hawaii.

With the Republican loss of Congress, the continuing slump in Bush's approval ratings and strong public opposition to the war, the president is under intense pressure to make some changes.

Bush had hoped to be able to announce U.S. troops withdrawals by now. Instead, in the war's fourth year, the administration is weighing whether to beef up American forces, which now number more than 140,000. Bush said this week he has not decided on any troops buildup or cutback.

Hadley said the two leaders would talk about how to move forward ``in a more effective and expeditious way.''

A joint statement released by Bush and al-Maliki recommitted the two leaders to the goals of combatting violence, curbing sectarian divisions and promoting stability.

``We reiterate our commitment to building the foundations of a peaceful, democratic, secure and unified Iraq and to strengthening the partnership between our two nations,'' they said.

Dissatisfaction with the war was seen as a major factor in the Republican election setback. Many Americans are frustrated by the relentless violence and the inability of Iraqi forces to take over security responsibilities from U.S. forces. More than 2,800 Americans have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

A joint commission formed by Bush and al-Maliki about a month ago has been exploring ways to accelerate the transfer of security duties to Iraqi forces and to give the government in Baghdad more control over how to protect the country. Hadley said the commission would report to Bush and al-Maliki on its work.

``The question will be whether that work has progressed enough so that there will be something to announce,'' Hadley said. ``But we're not looking for a big, bold announcement.''

Hadley said the idea of a summit came up in the last week or so. The meeting comes at a time of increasing diplomatic contact among Iraq, Iran and Syria.

This week Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic ties after nearly a quarter century. This weekend, al-Maliki is to go to Iran for a summit on the violence in Iraq. The move, viewed as an apparent attempt by Iran to counter U.S. influence in the region, was received with skepticism at the State Department in Washington.

A blue ribbon panel on Iraq, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democrat Rep. Lee Hamilton, will soon release recommendations on U.S. options in Iraq. The proposals are expected to include openings to Syrian and Iran in a bid to internationalize efforts to clamp the sectarian conflict.

``We think it is important that Iraq be speaking directly to these countries and making it clear to them that they need to play a positive role in seeking security, stability and democracy in Iraq,'' Hadley said.

Talking about the way forward in Iraq, Hadley said Bush will consult with the congressional leadership and consider the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission.

Hadley said Bush and al-Maliki talk frequently on the phone. ``But there is really no substitute for the two men getting together, sitting across a table and talking face to face.'' He said Jordan was selected as the site because Bush would already be overseas and King Abdullah II has been supportive of the unity government in Iraq.