AMMAN, Jordan – President Bush said Thursday the United States will speed a turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces but assured Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Washington is not looking for a "graceful exit" from a war well into its fourth violent year.
Under intensifying political pressure at home, the American and Iraqi leaders came together for a hastily arranged summit to explore how to stop escalating violence that is tearing Iraq apart and eroding support for Bush's war strategy.
With Bush hoping to strengthen his Iraqi counterpart's fragile government, the tensions that flared when their opening session was abruptly cancelled Wednesday evening were not apparent when they appeared before reporters after breakfast Thursday.
"I appreciate the courage you show during these difficult times as you lead your country," Bush told al-Maliki after nearly two and a half hours of talks. "He's the right guy for Iraq." It was their third face-to-face meeting since al-Maliki took power about six months ago.
"There is no problem," declared al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki called on al-Sadr lawmakers and Cabinet ministers Thursday to end their boycott of the parliament and government.
"I hope they reconsider their decision because it doesn't constitute a positive development in the political process," al-Maliki said at a news conference on his return to Baghdad from a two-day visit to neighboring Jordan.
The Sadrists, who have 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers, said Wednesday that their boycott was called to protest al-Maliki's meeting with Bush.
There were no immediate answers for mending the Shiite-Sunni divide that is fueling sectarian bloodshed in Iraq or taming the stubborn insurgency against the U.S. presence. The leaders emerged from their breakfast and formal session with few specific ideas, particularly on Bush's repeated pledge to move more quickly to transfer authority for Iraq's security to al-Maliki's government.
One of his frustrations with me is that he believes that we've been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people," Bush said. "He doesn't have the capacity to respond. So we want to accelerate that capacity."
There was no explanation from either side of how that would happen, beyond support for the long-standing goals of speeding the U.S. military's effort to train Iraqi security forces and to give more military authority over Iraq to al-Maliki.
A senior al-Maliki aide who attended Thursday's talks said the Iraqi leader presented Bush a blueprint for the equipping and training of Iraqi security forces. The aide, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the information, declined to give details.
The November elections that handed control of Congress to Democrats have given rise to heightened calls for the about 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq to begin coming home.
Bush acknowledged that pressure and said he wanted to start troop withdrawals as soon as possible. Still, he insisted the U.S. will stay "until the job is complete."
"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," he said. "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."
The president added: "I'm a realist because I understand how tough it is inside of Iraq."
Thursday's meetings were supposed to be Bush's second set of strategy sessions in the Jordanian capital. But the first meeting between Bush and al-Maliki, scheduled for Wednesday night along with Jordan's king, was scrubbed.
Accounts varied as to why, but it followed the leak of a classified White House memo critical of al-Maliki and a boycott of the Iraqi leader's government in Baghdad. Thirty Iraqi lawmakers and five cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they were suspending participation in Parliament and the government to protest al-Maliki's decision to meet with Bush.
Bush said al-Maliki "discussed with me his political situation," but he declined to step publicly into delicate internal Iraqi matters.
Privately, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly pressed the Iraqi prime minister to disband a heavily armed Shiite militia loyal to al-Sadr and blamed for much of the country's sectarian violence, according to the senior al-Maliki aide.
The official quoted al-Maliki as telling Bush that controlling the group "is not a big problem and we will find a solution for it." Al-Sadr is a key al-Maliki political backer and the prime minister has regularly sidestepped U.S. demands to deal with the Mahdi Army.
Before the cameras, Al-Maliki sent the protesting forces at home a message.
"Those who participate in this government need to bear responsibilities, and foremost upon those responsibilities is the protection of this government, the protection of the constitution, the protection of the law, not breaking the law," he said.
But al-Maliki's insistence on not attending the three-way meeting with Bush and Jordan's king was a troubling sign of possible U.S. difficulties ahead in the effort to calm Iraq.
The Bush administration is believed to be pushing its Sunni allies in the region — meeting host Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia — to persuade Sunni insurgent sympathizers in Iraq to reconcile with the Shiite factions that are close to the Iraqi leader.
Al-Maliki's refusal to meet with Bush while Jordan's king was in attendance showed a level of mistrust toward his Sunni-dominated neighbors that could bode ill for the U.S. strategy.
Bush, meanwhile, continued to reject drawing Shiite-led Iran into helping Iraq in its struggle for peace.
"I appreciate the prime minister's views that the Iraqis are plenty capable of running their own business and they don't need foreign interference from neighbors that will be destabilizing the country," he said.
Al-Maliki, though, seemed open to the possibility of Tehran, as well as Damascus, getting involved.
A bipartisan commission on Iraq that will unveil recommendations next week is expected to urge direct diplomacy with Iran and Syria, America's chief rivals in the Middle East.
"We are ready to cooperate with everybody who believe that they need to communicate with the national unity government, especially our neighbors," al-Maliki said. "Our doors are open."
"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," the president said. "I agree."