AMMAN, Jordan – President Bush, calling Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “the right guy for Iraq,” agreed Thursday that coalition forces will accelerate a transfer of control over Iraq’s security to the young government in Baghdad but cautioned against anyone expecting a “graceful exit” of U.S. troops anytime soon.

At a time of intensifying sectarian violence in Iraq, Bush secured assurances from al-Maliki in private meetings that the Iraqi leader is intent on combating armed extremists in his country. Yet al-Maliki also told Bush of his frustration about the “slow” transfer of authority over Iraqi security forces to his government.

Al-Maliki told ABC News in an interview that Iraqi forces would be ready by June to assume responsibility for security of the country, an assertion that U.S. officials have downplayed as too ambitious.

Bush’s meeting with al-Maliki unfolded as Washington began debating the Iraq Study Group’s reported recommendation that the U.S. begin a phased withdrawal of troops, but without setting a timetable. The summit, hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, was part of a flurry of diplomatic consultations across the Middle East in search of concerted efforts to deal with the Iraq crisis and other problems in the region.

President Bush appeared intent on reinforcing U.S. backing of the prime minister a day after the revelation of a White House memo questioning al-Maliki’s competence and the abrupt postponement of their first scheduled meeting Wednesday night.

“He’s the right guy for Iraq,” said Bush, standing alongside al-Maliki at a news conference after nearly two hours of private meetings. “We’re going to help him, and it’s in our interest to help him, for the sake of peace.”

Asked what the U.S. has achieved after nearly four years of war, Bush said a democracy is taking root in the Middle East: “You bet it’s worth it in Iraq, and necessary,” he said.

Yet, at a time of increasing calls among leaders and experts in Washington for a U.S. exit strategy in Iraq, the president insisted he is not ready to talk about troop withdrawals. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which was commissioned by Congress, has announced it will report its recommendations next week.

“I know there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq,” Bush said. “We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there.

“I’ve been asked about timetables ever since we got into this. All timetables mean is that it – it is a timetable for withdrawal . . . All that does is set people up for unrealistic expectations . . . This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.”

Bush vowed that the U.S. will withdraw “as soon as possible,” adding, “And today, we made a step toward, as soon as possible . . . accelerating the transfer of authorities, military authorities to the prime minister.”

The tone of Thursday’s meetings was far different from the tone the night before, when the two leaders’ first meeting was postponed after publication of the leaked White House memo accusing al-Maliki of contributing to the sectarian rifts that he has vowed to mend. Bush arrived in Amman to find a three-way meeting and dinner with al-Maliki and their host, King Abdullah II of Jordan, canceled.

Al-Maliki insisted Thursday that there had been “no problem,” and an administration official said the subject of the memo had not come up in their general meeting, though jokes were floated about leaks.

The memo’s author, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, attended the staff meeting with the two leaders and sat by a wall, out of line of sight, during the news conference. Al-Maliki appeared uncomfortable during the 38-minute news conference, largely looking straight ahead and not at Bush, except, near the end, when Bush asked whether they should take more questions. Al-Maliki slowly turned toward Bush with a stern stare.

Bush said al-Maliki had committed to controlling militias that have contributed to violence. He also said the prime minister had committed to respect for rights of minorities and a pluralistic society.

The partition of Iraq along ethnic lines is unacceptable, the two leaders affirmed Thursday.

“The prime minister made clear that splitting his country into parts, as some have suggested, is not what the Iraqi people want and that any partition of Iraq would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence,” Bush said. “I agree. In the long term, security in Iraq requires reconciliation among Iraq’s different ethnic and religious communities, something the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want.”

They also discussed the role that Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is playing in fomenting sectarian unrest, with the prime minister vowing justice for anyone who commits violence. But al-Maliki also made it clear that al-Sadr will remain a part of a “unity government” built upon a fragile coalition of parties and sects.

“My coalition is not with only one entity,” al-Maliki said. “The national unity government is a government formed of all the entities that participated in it . . . I do not talk about one side at the expense of the other.”

Throughout their appearance, Bush attempted to underscore his faith in al-Maliki, with whom he has met either personally or by videoconference four times during the Iraqi leader’s six months in office.

“A sign of leadership is for somebody to say, “I want to be able to have the tools necessary to protect my people,’

” Bush said of al-Maliki. “One of his frustrations with me is that he believes we’ve been slow about giving him the tools necessary . . .

“I appreciate his attitude. As opposed to saying, “America, you go solve the problem,’ we have a prime minister who’s saying, “Stop holding me back, I want to solve the problem.”‘


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