AMMAN, Jordan – President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday opened talks originally set for the day before but canceled following disclosure of U.S. doubts about the Iraqi leader's capabilities and a Baghdad protest of his attendance.
Instead of talks over two days, the stunning turn of events found Bush and al-Maliki meeting only Thursday for a working breakfast and a longer session afterward. The Iraqi prime minister came to Bush's hotel, and the pair were to appear before reporters at the end of nearly two and a half hours together.
President Bush 's scheduled face-to-face with al-Maliki was abruptly shelved Wednesday night, a casualty either of a reluctance to include Jordan's King Abdullah II — as the Iraqis explained — or, fallout from the leak of a secret White House memo that questioned the Iraqi leader's ability to govern.
White House officials said Bush and al-Maliki are now set to sit down to a breakfast and single meeting early Thursday, followed by a news conference.
In a tortured explanation backing up the Iraqi version of events, White House officials told reporters that it was decided the three-person meeting was "in the end not the optimal way to spend the president's time," and it would not have been as productive as the previously scheduled separate bilateral meetings between the leaders.
While U.S. officials were vague about the sequence of events that led to cancellation of Wednesday's meeting, they insisted that it was agreed upon by all three leaders, though the call about the change of plans was made to Air Force One while Bush was still traveling from Riga, Latvia.
"Since the King of Jordan and the prime minister had a bilateral themselves earlier today, everyone believed that it negated the purpose of the three of them to meet tonight together in a trilateral setting," White House adviser Dan Bartlett told reporters traveling with Bush.
The explanation, offered in detail several hours after the fact, resembled one given by an Iraqi lawmaker traveling with al-Maliki in Amman. Redha Jawad Taqi, a senior aide of top Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim said the Iraqis balked at the three-way meeting after learning that King Abdullah wanted to broaden the talks to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the prime minister had been reluctant to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want "a third party" involved in talks about subjects specific to the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.
"We insisted that the meeting be canceled," said one of the officials. "Iraq does not need a third party to be involved."
The delay comes after the high-stakes summit was marred by a public disclosure of Bush administration doubts about al-Maliki's ability to control sectarian growing violence and a walkout of Iraq's coalition government by 30 parliamentarians loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Six Cabinet ministers also suspended their participation in the government saying their action was necessary because the meeting in Jordan constituted a "provocation to the feelings of the Iraqi people and a violation of their constitutional rights." Their statement did not explain that claim.
Bartlett denied that the delay had anything to do with a New York Times report Wednesday that said White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley wrote in a classified Nov. 8 memo that al-Maliki's "capabilities are not yet sufficient" to control sectarian violence that has spread unabated throughout Iraq. Hadley also recommended steps to strengthen al-Maliki's position. The memo was written after an Oct. 30 trip to Baghdad.
"The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action," the Times quoted the memo as saying.
The White House won't respond to the leaked memo because it is classified, but Press Secretary Tony Snow didn't exactly dispute it either.
"The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki, and also the administration is working with the prime minister to improve his capabilities in terms of dealing with the fundamental challenges in Iraq, which are security concerns, economic growth, political reconciliation and regional diplomacy," Snow said.
But Snow appeared surprised when news broke about the delay. Boarding the motorcade for the trip to the Jordanian monarch's palace, he said discussions were still being had about whether a photo-op Wednesday night would include al-Maliki.
A senior administration official reacting on condition of anonymity said that, taken as a whole, the memo is an expression of support for al-Maliki.
"You have a constant reiteration of the importance of strengthening the Maliki government, the need to work with him, to augment his capabilities," the official said.
He added that Bush and al-Maliki have a "personal relationship" that allows them to "talk candidly about the challenges."
Another official, also speaking anonymously because of the classified nature of the memo, told the Times that it was not "a slap in the face, but it's how do we grow his capability."
Bush and al-Maliki are scheduled to get together Thursday in a session meant to examine ways to curb the violence in Iraq, where the United States has about 139,000 troops.
Bartlett said the king and the prime minister had met before Bush arrived from a NATO summit and the three-way talk on Wednesday night was supposed to be "a social meeting." Bush's meeting with King Abdullah proceeded as scheduled, and the two had dinner together without Al-Maliki, who was not scheduled to be at that event.
U.S. officials said the dinner discussion revolved around the situation in Lebanon, where political killings are undermining the U.S.-backed Saniora government, and Syria's role in it. They also discussed the Israeli-Palestianian situation. Officials said Iraq was never supposed to be the topic of dinner conversation.
Bartlett said despite the delay, he is sure al-Maliki and Bush to have "robust" talks Thursday and we can "expect a lot of give and take."
The meetings scheduled Wednesday and Thursday aim at halting Iraq's escalating sectarian violence and paving the way for a reduction of American troops.
"We are sticking to our position. ... The boycott is still valid," Falih Hassan, a Sadrist legislator, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Bush is a criminal who killed a lot of Iraqis and we do not want him to interfere in Iraq's affairs. The Iraqi government should negotiate with the U.N. Security Council, not with the leader of the country that is occupying Iraq."
In New York on Tuesday, U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend for one year the mandate of the 160,000-strong multinational force in Iraq.
The Security Council responded to a request from al-Maliki, who said a top government priority is to assume full responsibility for security and stability throughout Iraq but that it needs more time.
The White House is avoiding directly pressuring al-Maliki to do more to stop the bloodshed, or impose directives. Instead, Bush is expected to ask the prime minister for ideas on how to train Iraqi forces faster so they can shoulder more responsibility for securing the nation against sectarian extremists, and hear how he plans to mend his nation's bitter Sunni-Shia divide.
The meeting was to take place at the Raghadan Palace, high on a hill in the Jordanian capital.
"We will discuss the situation on the ground in his country, our ongoing efforts to transfer more responsibility to the Iraqi security forces, and the responsibility of other nations in the region to support the security and stability of Iraq," Bush said Tuesday while attending the NATO summit in Riga.
"We'll continue to be flexible, and we'll make the changes necessary to succeed. But there's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
The planned meeting with al-Maliki is part of a new flurry of diplomacy the Bush administration has undertaken across the Middle East. Hadley's memo suggests that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hold a meeting for Iraq and its neighbors in the region early next month.
After the Bush-al-Maliki summit, Rice is staying behind in the region for talks with Palestinian, and possibly, Israeli leaders, who agreed last weekend on a cease-fire to end five months of fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Hadley suggested in his memo that the United States could step up is efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, the Times reported. Hadley said Saudi Arabia could use its influence to move Sunni populations in Iraq out of violence and into politics, cut off any public or private funding provided to the insurgents or death squads from the region and lean on Syria to terminate its support for Baathists and insurgent leaders.
Iraqi officials say the United States wants other Sunni governments in the area, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, to persuade moderate Sunnis in Iraq to line up with al-Maliki. That would give him political clout he needs to challenge radical militias trying to undermine his authority.
Those three governments also are urging the United States to resume its role as mediator in the long-festering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, an issue that prejudices relations throughout the region.
Back in Washington, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel created to recommend a new way forward in Iraq, were meeting for a third day. The independent panel, set to issue a report next month, did not reach a consensus Tuesday on how many or how long U.S. troops should remain in Iraq, forcing the group to return for a third day of debate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.