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Bush, Maliki Meeting Put Off in Wake of Memo


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush has arrived in Jordan's capital, Amman, for a much-anticipated meeting with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two men were originally scheduled to hold a first round of talks tonight but that meeting was abruptly cancelled. Instead, the president conferred with Jordan's King Abdullah.

NPR's David Greene joins us now from Amman and David, President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki both now in Amman. Has the White House explained why they called off tonight's meeting?

DAVID GREENE: Well, Michele, here's what the White House said. Prime Minister al-Maliki got to Amman earlier today and had a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan and when President Bush arrived, he was supposed to go meet with both Maliki and the king, but the White House says the Iraqis and Jordanians decided they didn't need to have the meeting with the president. So Mr. Bush, as he was flying on Air Force One, got a call from the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq telling him the meeting was off. So when the president got to Amman, he only met with King Abdullah of Jordan and we're told they talked about a range of Middle East issues.

Now White House officials said not to read anything into this change in schedule but it does come just after a classified memo from the White House surfaced that was actually very critical of al-Maliki's government and it questioned his leadership. So it's a bit difficult not to read a bit more into why al-Maliki and the president did not meet tonight.

NORRIS: We'll get back to that memo in just a minute but this White House is known for carefully planning meetings, sticking to a schedule. It seems that this is a bit unusual.

GREENE: Oh, yeah. This is very unusual. When the White House announced this summit last week they said Mr. Bush and al-Maliki would be holding meetings over two days, today and tomorrow. And there's been so much anticipation. A major television network in the U.S. sent their anchors here to give big coverage to the meetings. Now Mr. Bush and al-Maliki are still scheduled to meet tomorrow and talk to reporters afterwards.

There were some reports here in Amman that al-Maliki backed out of the meeting with Mr. Bush because he didn't want to talk about broader regional issues like the Israeli-Palestinian tensions and he thought that would come up in a three-way meeting. In addition, al-Maliki was under enormous pressure back at home not to meet with the president at all. Politicians loyal to the very powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were threatening to boycott taking part in government activities in Baghdad to protest the meeting.

So the White House insists this was not a snub and they say they've been assured al-Maliki was not offended by this White House memo that criticizes al-Maliki, but there are some questions here.

NORRIS: David, back to that memo you mentioned criticizing al-Maliki. Can you tell us a little bit more about who wrote it and also the White House response to that leak?

GREENE: Sure. It was written by the president's own National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley a few weeks ago after he returned from a trip to Baghdad. White House officials say the document is mostly encouraging of al-Maliki and talks about how the U.S. can help him become more able to secure his country but there's some pretty stunning criticisms of al-Maliki.

Hadley wrote that it's possible al-Maliki is ignorant of what's taking place in his country. It questions his intentions. It suggests al-Maliki or at least people loyal to him are trying to concentrate Shiite power in the government at the expense of Sunnis. Hadley even mentions the possibility al-Maliki's government is encouraging military attacks on Sunni targets and trying to stop military attacks when the targets involved Shiite targets.

NORRIS: Given that assessment, has there been some tension between President Bush and the prime minister?

GREENE: There's certainly been some, especially in recent months. Al-Maliki seemed upset when President Bush first started talking about setting timetables some months ago. Timetables on al-Maliki's government to reach certain goals. Al-Maliki also expressed frustration some time back that there were military attacks carried out in Baghdad without him being informed.

While the White House says Mr. Bush is still confident in Maliki going into these meetings, this memo suggests that there are some serious doubts. Of course, we don't know where this memo came from. It showed up in the New York Times. It was evidently leaked but we don't know why and we don't know what the motives may have been.

NORRIS: And just quickly, we noted that the president did confer with Jordan's king. Anything come out of that meeting?

GREENE: Well what the White House is saying is that the king is very eager for the president to be more involved in solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going to be traveling from here to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials during the day tomorrow.

NORRIS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's David Greene, speaking to us from Amman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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