Canceled meeting underscores Iraq's volatility

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 govern...

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 today as planned, despite the political turmoil in Baghdad and the leak of an administration memo detailing U.S. concerns about al-Maliki's ability to control sectarian violence.

The cancellation was a surprise, however, and coupled with the withdrawal of the Sadrists, a key part of al-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 announ-ced the deaths of two U.S. soldiers: One died Wednesday from combat wounds in western Anbar province; the other was killed Tuesday by a roadside bomb in northern Salahuddin province.


Meanwhile, in Washington, the high-level Iraq Study Group, led 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 al-Maliki-Bush dinner was canceled. One senior administration official insisted that the dinner never had been planned, but a schedule given to reporters traveling with the president on Tuesday listed a 7:45 p.m. meeting among Bush, al-Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II, followed by an 8:35 p.m. dinner.

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

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

In a stinging rebuke to al-Maliki, the Sadr supporters -- six Shiite Cabinet ministers and 30 legislators -- said 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 al-Maliki, and their decision to withdraw from the government put the prime minister, already considered weak, in the position of having to reject his Iraqi supporters to avoid humiliating Bush, even as administration officials leaked a secret memo questioning al-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 al-Maliki's government, just to "register objections" to the meeting. The boycotting politicians would present al-Maliki with a set of unspecified demands upon his return from Jordan, al-Araji said.

Many Sadrists said they were infuriated by al-Maliki's decision to meet with Bush after recent U.S. military raids on their stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad. They also accused al-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."

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

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


U.S. defense officials said Wednesday the Pentagon is developing plans to send four more battalions to Iraq early next year, including some to Baghdad.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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