AMMAN, Jordan – A scheduled dinner meeting between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was canceled Wednesday, hours after 36 Iraqi politicians loyal to militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew from their government posts and denounced Bush as “the world’s biggest evil.”

The White House denied that the delay was a snub by the Iraqi leader and insisted that “robust” talks would continue as planned today, despite the political turmoil in Baghdad and the leak of an administration memo detailing U.S. concerns about Maliki’s ability to control sectarian violence.

The cancellation was clearly a surprise, however, and coupled with the withdrawal of the Sadrists who are a key part of Maliki’s political base, it underscored how volatile Iraq has become as violence has reached record levels.

At least 57 bodies were found scattered around Baghdad on Wednesday, and there were reports of widespread violence around the country, including a raid by Sunni insurgents on the police station in Baqouba, apparently in an effort to cement control of that city north of the capital.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two more American soldiers: One died on Wednesday from “wounds sustained due to enemy action” in western Anbar province; the other was killed on Tuesday by a roadside bomb in northern Salahuddin province.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the high-level Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and retired Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, wrapped up three days of consultations Wednesday and announced that it will present its recommendations to Congress, the White House and the public on Dec. 6.

Experts close to the panel said the five Republican and five Democratic commissioners have reached a consensus and will present what one called “a candid, frank assessment” of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The panel appears unlikely, however, to recommend a deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, though its final recommendation on that issue isn’t known.

Administration officials were at a loss to offer a single version of why the Maliki-Bush dinner was canceled. One senior administration official insisted that the dinner had never been planned, but a schedule given to reporters traveling with the president on Tuesday listed a 7:45 p.m. meeting among Bush, Maliki and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, followed by an 8:35 p.m. dinner.

Spokesmen for King Abdullah said that the schedule had been changed to give the king more time to meet with Bush on Jordanian issues. They said that Abdullah had met with Maliki earlier in the day.

Whatever the reason, the cancellation heightened the drama surrounding Thursday’s planned Maliki-Bush session, which roiled Iraq’s delicate political balance even before it took place.

In a stinging rebuke to Maliki, the Sadr supporters – six Shiite Cabinet ministers and 30 legislators – said that any meeting with Bush was against the will of the Iraqi people. They said their boycott of the government was open-ended.

“This is an objection to the policy of an Iraqi government that insists on importing solutions from foreign countries when all the crises we face are because of the presence of the occupation forces,” said Bahaa al-Araji, one of the Sadr-allied lawmakers. “There is no need to open paths for U.S. and regional forces to get involved in our affairs, especially if it means giving these forces the authority to run our security policy.”

The Sadr forces have been crucial allies for Maliki, and their decision to withdraw from the government put the prime minister, already considered weak, in the difficult position of having to reject his Iraqi supporters to avoid humiliating Bush, even as administration officials leaked a secret memo questioning Maliki’s competence and leadership abilities.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that the leaked document, which was published by The New York Times on Wednesday, played a role in the dinner’s cancellation.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “No one should read too much into this, except for the fact that they (Bush and Abdullah) had a good meeting.”

The Sadrists’ anti-American remarks were ominous reminders that they remain opposed to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Sadr forces clashed openly with American forces twice in 2004.

Al-Araji said the Sadrists weren’t out to topple Maliki’s government, just to “register objections” to the meeting. The boycotting politicians would present Maliki with a set of unspecified demands upon his return from Jordan, al-Araji said.

Many Sadrists said they were infuriated by Maliki’s decision to meet with Bush after recent U.S. military raids on their stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad. They also accused Maliki of bowing to U.S. pressure with reported plans to expand the number of American troops in Baghdad.

“This is not a visit. It’s a summons,” said Maha Adil Mahdi, a legislator from the Sadrist bloc. “It’s an insult to the people of Sadr City. They bombed the city, and people were in a sea of blood, but then when they call him, he goes.”

Maliki’s top aides were out of the country with the prime minister and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sectarian violence

Both U.S. and Iraqi forces appear increasingly powerless to halt the escalating insurgent and sectarian violence in Baghdad and other provinces.

Ten civilians were injured in separate mortar attacks in the Shoala and Shurta neighborhoods, where Sunni insurgents are battling Shiite militias for supremacy.

A homemade bomb exploded at a bus stop in Baghdad, killing two Iraqi civilians and injuring four others, including two policemen, the interior ministry announced. Three car bombs were detonated in other attacks on patrols and checkpoints in the capital, killing two civilians and one policeman. Eight civilians and nine officers were wounded, police said.

Large-scale gun battles and other violence broke out in areas north of Baghdad, according to Iraqi security officials in Salahuddin province. Four policemen were killed and six were wounded in a car bombing in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

In Samarra, police said, 10 carloads of gunmen ambushed a police checkpoint, killing two policemen and injuring three others. The attackers seized some police weapons, but were driven off by intervening U.S. troops. A curfew was imposed on the city shortly after the attack.

Residents of Baqouba in Diyala province said that Sunni insurgents are working to cement their control of the city, which is mostly shuttered after several days of intense fighting. As many as 50 attackers armed with mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the main police station from three sides Wednesday, Iraqi security officials said. Five gunmen were killed at the scene; no other casualties were reported.

A health ministry official in Diyala, whose name was withheld for security reasons, said the Baqouba hospital’s morgue could no longer cope with the unidentified bodies that are piling up after the recent spasm of violence. Health officials on Wednesday gave local residents two days to claim 19 bodies before they were buried in unmarked graves.

The official said he’s received reports of additional corpses being consumed by dogs because Baqouba’s streets remain too dangerous for recovery crews.

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