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Seeking to Ease Rift, Bush Confers With Iraq Premier




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    BAGHDAD, Oct. 28 — President Bush stepped into an increasingly fractious relationship with the Iraqi government in a videoconference with Baghdad on Saturday after days of angry comments by Iraqi leaders about what they see as American meddling.

    The 50-minute conference between Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki took place after an acrimonious conversation late Friday between Mr. Maliki and the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. According to an aide to Mr. Maliki, the Iraqi leader said that he was “a friend of the United States, but not America’s man in Iraq.”

    The sharp remarks appear to be part of a growing schism between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and its American supporters, a division building for months that burst into full public view this week. Mr. Maliki spoke out angrily on Wednesday against the idea of American deadlines for action on stabilizing Iraq. Mr. Khalilzad publicly detailed the benchmarks the day before.

    Iraqi leaders say that the United States, in particular Mr. Khalilzad, has been too meddlesome in internal affairs.

    In the videoconference, Mr. Maliki, sitting beside Mr. Khalilzad in the Green Zone, opened with praise for Mr. Bush, according to Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. “History will record that because of your efforts Iraq is a free country,” Mr. Maliki said, echoing a statement he made on his trip to Washington three months ago, according to Mr. Snow, who sat in on the session.

    Mr. Snow said that Mr. Maliki made “no demands, and it was a very cordial discussion.” But the prime minister, he said, made clear that he wanted to move quickly toward “an Iraqi assumption of command and control” over forces operating in Baghdad and elsewhere.

    A Maliki spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said the prime minister had said the Iraqi government wanted more control over its army, which operates under Americans.

    The meeting, the second in 12 days for Mr. Bush and Mr. Maliki, was clearly part of a White House effort to diffuse tensions between the two governments.


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    The push for more Iraqi control comes just as American military commanders are saying the Iraqi Army needs more time to improve. America’s top military commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., said this week that it would be another 12 to 18 months before Iraqi troops would be ready to take over.

    A central irritant for the Shiite leaders is what they say is an American preoccupation with Shiite militias — often linked to political parties — that have been responsible for much of the bloodshed here in the past year. Shiites fault American officials, particularly Mr. Khalilzad, for treating militias as enemies on a par with the Sunni insurgency.

    “The forces need to know one clear fact,” said one prominent Shiite politician. “Who is the real enemy here? It is the Saddamists and the takfiris.” Takfiris are Sunni extremists.

    That preoccupation has distracted American military policy, Shiite leaders say, and led to gaps in protection of Shiite areas vulnerable to attacks by Sunni militants, a position that American military commanders strongly dispute. Leaders argue that the Iraqis should be allowed to protect these areas themselves, an assertion that raises a distant but real American fear — that the government could use the largely Shiite army selectively, or that it could even become one side of a civil war.


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    Mr. Maliki leads a government that is a fragile coalition between Sunnis, Kurds and other groups, but with the arguments made in recent days, appears to be placing himself firmly inside the Shiite camp, lending an increasingly sectarian tinge to the Iraqi political landscape.

    One major lever the Iraqis have is the United Nations agreement that extends legal authority for foreign troops to be here. Senior officials are trying to amend the agreement, which expires on Dec. 31, in order to give the government more control over parts of the army sooner, a process American officials are watching worriedly.

    “I am now prime minister and overall commander of the armed forces, yet I cannot move a single company without coalition approval because of the U.N. mandate,” Mr. Maliki told Reuters on Thursday. “If anyone is responsible for the poor security situation in Iraq, it is the coalition.”

    In Washington, the administration has sought to smooth relations, particularly as midterm elections near.

    Part of the Shiites’ anger seems to center on Mr. Khalilzad. A Sunni Muslim born in Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad has been most closely associated with his intense efforts to bring minority Sunni Arabs into Iraqi politics. Shiite leaders say he has worked so hard to involve Sunnis that he has abandoned the Shiites.

    In the Reuters interview, Mr. Maliki said that he was unhappy with Mr. Khalilzad’s presentation of a timetable for Iraqi reform that the Bush administration has pressed. He said that the goals had been laid out at an internal meeting two months before, and that they had been produced by Iraqis, not American officials.

    The meeting on Saturday, whose participants included Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, was also notable for what was not discussed. Mr. Bush did not raise the White House frustrations with the comparatively small number of Iraqi troops dedicated to the latest effort to secure Baghdad. Nor was there discussion, Mr. Snow said, of seeking to further incorporate the militia of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr into the army.

    In recent days, other officials have stressed that Mr. Bush is doing all he can to bolster Mr. Maliki, whose early months as prime minister were widely described in Washington as a disappointment. But several officials have noted recently that Mr. Bush has promised to support Mr. Maliki only as long as he makes what Mr. Bush calls “hard decisions.”

    “No one has said what happens if he stops making those decisions,” one senior official said early this week. “I don’t think anyone knows.”

    Mr. Maliki took issue even with aspects of the enterprise that Americans have gone to great lengths to make work. On Friday, with Mr. Khalilzad and in the Reuters interview, Mr. Maliki noted that the police and the army were poorly equipped, and that if Iraqis were in charge of building them, they would be fully ready in 6 months, not 12 to 18.

    “The police are sharing rifles,” Mr. Maliki told Reuters. “This is the responsibility of the coalition because they created them.”


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    “Maybe they thought that the country would not slip into this situation,” he said. “Well, now that we are here we need them to build the army quickly.”

    The White House, in a statement, said the leaders had agreed on the goals of accelerating the pace of training the Iraqi Security Force, Iraqi assumption of command and control over its forces, and transferring responsibility for security to the government of Iraq. A working group was set up to achieve them.

    The military on Saturday announced the death of another American soldier from “enemy action” on Friday in Anbar Province in western Iraq. It has also said a soldier was killed in Diyala Province on Thursday. The deaths bring the toll for American troops this month to 98, the highest for one month in more than a year.

    Also on Saturday, 11 Iraqi soldiers were kidnapped at a fake checkpoint in the heavily Sunni village of Adhaim, north of Baghdad. South of Baghdad in the town of Iskandariya, five Iraqis were killed and 11 wounded in a car bombing.


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