WASHINGTON – President Bush and members of his administration aren't taking offense to comments by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who argued Wednesday that U.S. troops could go home sooner if the U.S. military lived up to its commitment to arm Iraqi forces.
"A lot of people here doubt he's going to take the moves necessary. He has been constantly asking for an upgrade of troops as well as equipment and we're providing that. We may not be providing it as quickly as he wants, but nevertheless, it's a good sign the prime minister says, 'Just give us the capabilities,'" Bush said Thursday in an interview with the Belo network.
"That's precisely what my new strategy and new plan is attempting to do," Bush said.
Other officials echoed the president.
"I dispute the characterization that he was very critical of the president," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said. "We've said it's important to make sure there is more money, training and equipment for the Iraqi forces. Also, this is another indication that here's a guy who's serious about taking on responsibility when it comes to providing security within Iraq."
On Wednesday, al-Maliki told an Italian newspaper that if the U.S. military had equipped Iraqi troops with more and better weapons, they could begin drawing down troops.
"If we succeed in implementing the agreement between us to speed up the equipping and providing weapons to our military forces, I think that within three to six months our need for American troops will dramatically go down. That is on condition that there are real, strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping them and arming them," al-Maliki told Corriere della Serra, according to The Times of London.
The prime minister also complained that Bush had given in to domestic pressure when he criticized the Iraqi government's handling of the Saddam Hussein hanging and that a remark by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that his government is on "borrowed time" gives a morale boost to terrorists
An Iraqi government spokesman later denied al-Maliki made those statements about the lack of equipment. A Defense Department spokesman said al-Maliki's comments were taken out of context. He did not provide further details.
High-ranking defense and intelligence officials said Thursday that al-Maliki's estimates about Iraqi troop readiness might be slightly optimistic.
"Speaking in part as someone who was ambassador out there, I think it reflects on Mr. Maliki's part a laudable desire for them on their part to take over as much control and as much of the lead as possible," said National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, whose prior job was U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
Negroponte told the House Intelligence Committee that he believed the end of 2007 would be realistic for Iraqi forces to take the lead, but "not necessarily entire control and complete control of these activities and I think there will still be a need for American support of various kinds, whether its intelligence or logistics or what have you. ... But clearly we want to see a shift of weight, and I think that's the thrust of what he's saying."
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples agreed with Negroponte, testifying in the same hearing that it appears Iraqis will have the military capability to take the lead in "various parts of Iraq" by the end of the year.
"That said," Maples said, "There are still issues with the Iraqi armed forces in terms of manning and some equipping issues that are associated with those brigades."
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As part of its expected $100 billion request to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration is reportedly preparing to ask Congress for about $9.8 billion this year for equipping both Iraq's and Afghanistan's security forces. A Government Accountability Office report published last week said the United States has provided $15.4 billion for training and equipment of both military and law enforcement there.
But the report was critical of the Defense Department's methods to equip Iraqi security forces. It noted that between 2003 when the United States started providing materials and October 2006, U.S.-led forces in Iraq issued about 30,000 vehicles, 1.65 million pieces of gear and other items. But of the 480,000 weapons given to Iraqi security forces as many as 170,000 weapons are unaccounted.
"[A]ccording to our preliminary analysis DOD [Department of Defense] and MNF-1 [the U.S.-led multinational forces] may not be able to account for Iraqi security forces' receipt of about 90,000 rifles and about 80,000 pistols which were reported as issued," the report reads.
GAO blamed administrative and logistical problems for the missing weapons, suggesting they may not be lost or stolen, but disappeared in the paperwork.
"Thus DOD and MNF-1 may be unable to ensure that Iraqi military forces and police received all of the equipment that the coalition procured or obtained for them," reads the document.
GAO's international affairs and trade director Joseph Christoff told FOXNews.com that it's difficult to tell what the Iraqi government is lacking because the Defense Department has not provided ground-level reports by U.S. commanders who are assessing the new Iraqi brigades.
"We don't know what they need," Christoff said, adding that the assessments are classified, but GAO routinely receives classified information from the Pentagon, including similar audits on U.S. forces.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spoke to reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan, suggested al-Maliki's stated frustrations could be an expression that he is disappointed by Iraq's security forces not yet being as prepared as he would like them to be.
"I think that the prime minister wanted to do this by himself, or to have the Iraqis do this on their own. He wants to take the lead. He wants to show he's in charge. He wants to show that his government can deliver," Gates said.
But Gates said he is not surprised that al-Maliki is hesitant about having 21,000 more U.S. troops sent to Baghdad.
"It doesn't really surprise me that he does not embrace this fully. ... I think he goes into this wishing that the Iraqis could do it on their own," Gates said.
Snow pointed to indicators that al-Maliki in making progress on running an effective democracy, citing the creation of an oil- and hydrocarbon-sharing law and a law to re-admit former Baath party members into the government. He has also sent two battalions of troops to Baghdad to join the additional U.S. forces.
"If you look procedurally at what he is discussing in terms of troops, in terms of the way forward, I think that he is on board. ... Frankly, we're making too much of this, I think."
FOX News' Nick Simeone, Mary Anne Riha and Greg Simmons contributed to this report.