Bush and Maliki agree on more troops

By Steve Holland

Washington - President George Bush and Iraq's prime minister said on Tuesday more US and Iraqi troops will go to Baghdad to try to slow sectarian violence in talks that exposed gaps between them on the Middle East.

"God willing, there will be no civil war in Iraq," Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said.

Bush, at a joint news conference with Maliki that lacked a great deal of warmth, said those going to Baghdad would be pulled from areas in Iraq that are deemed relatively free of violence.

The new security plan was an acknowledgement that a strengthening of Baghdad imposed by Maliki five weeks ago has been a failure, with hundreds of people killed in sectarian violence.

It was unclear how the new plan would affect Pentagon hopes of reducing the US troop deployment in Iraq by year's end, a move with an important political consideration given Republican efforts to maintain control of the US Congress in November elections and the unpopularity of the war among many Americans.

There are now 127 000 American troops in Iraq.

A US defence official said 400 soldiers, from an Army brigade held in reserve in Kuwait, will be sent into Iraq in the coming days to help free up other troops to go to Baghdad.

Bush said troop decisions will be made by US commanders on the ground and he assured Maliki that, "America will not abandon the Iraqi people."

"No question it's tough in Baghdad. And no question it's tough in other parts of Iraq. But there are also places where progress is being made," Bush said.

Bush and Pentagon officials gave no indication how many US troops might be involved in the Baghdad reinforcement. A senior administration official said this was intentional and the numbers would be decided by the generals.

The two leaders had what Bush called a "frank exchange" - diplomatic parlance for a sharp disagreement - over the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Maliki told the news conference he emphasised the importance of an immediate cease-fire, a position Bush refused to embrace.

"We want to address the root causes of the violence in the area. And, therefore, our mission and our goal is to have a lasting peace, not a temporary peace, but something that lasts," Bush said.

Bush has resisted multiple calls from Arab leaders for him to urge an immediate cease-fire, saying Hezbollah attacks on Israelis must be addressed.

That position has basically bought time for Israel to carry out its campaign against Hezbollah.

Maliki came to Washington having denounced Israel for the attacks while refusing to condemn Hezbollah, points that drew the ire of Democrats on Capitol Hill.

A group of House of Representatives Democrats circulated a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert urging the Illinois Republican to get an apology from Maliki for denouncing Israel or cancel his address on Wednesday to a joint meeting of Congress.

Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesperson, said there was no intention to cancel Maliki's speech, and accused Democrats of "political gamesmanship during an election year".

Asked at the White House his position in Hezbollah, Maliki demurred.

"Here, actually, we're talking about the suffering of a people in a country. And we are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another, or any government position," he said.

Senate Democrats also criticised Maliki's position on Hezbollah and Israel in a letter to him.

Maliki's emergence to power prompted Bush to make a surprise visit to Baghdad June 13 and, along with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, spawned hopes among Americans that Iraq was changing for the better.

  • Additional reporting by Patricia Wilson and Caren Bohan

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