Maliki hailed as 'the right guy for Iraq' as civil war is ignored

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The Independent Online

President George Bush yesterday insisted that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the "right guy" for Iraq and pledged to accelerate the handover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces. Dismissing calls for what he derided as a "graceful exit" by the US, Mr Bush declared: "We'll be in Iraq until the job is complete."

Mr Bush went out of his way in public to express his confidence in Mr Maliki, about whose abilities doubts were raised in a leaked report this week by one of Mr Bush's closest lieutenants, the National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

Saying after meeting Mr Maliki yesterday that he had been "able to watch a leader emerge", Mr Bush said Mr Maliki had told him that his own house had been shelled by insurgents and added: "You can't lead unless you've got courage. He's got courage and he's shown courage over the last six months."

While repeatedly saying that he wanted to speed up the handover of control of security to Iraqi forces "as soon as possible", he refused to set a timetable. "All the timetables mean is a timetable for withdrawal," he said. "All that does is set people up for unrealistic expectations. 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. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there."

Mr Bush also said that he and the Iraqi Prime Minister were opposed to any break-up of Iraq. "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 in Iraq would only lead to an increase of sectarian violence," Mr. Bush said. "I agree."

But with the relentless tide of violence in Iraq steadily increasing the political pressure within the US on Mr Bush for withdrawal, yesterday's meeting with Mr Maliki showed little sign of resolving the key questions over the administration's strategy.

Mr Bush said that the two men had discussed "accelerating authority to the prime minister" and "part of the prime minister's frustrations is that he doesn't have the tools necessary to take care of those who break the law."

But a senior administration official acknowledged to reporters travelling with Mr Bush that this was "not a simple process." The official was quoted as saying: "This is not the United States and Iraq struggling for control of the steering wheel. This is the United States wanting Iraq to be firmly with the steering wheel in its hand, and the issue is, how do we get there as quickly as possible?"

While US administration officials want Mr Maliki to end his dependence on the Shia faction led by Muqtada al-Sadr - who is campaigning for a US withdrawal - both men at the news conference yesterday effectively sidestepped the question of Mr Sadr's future in the government.

As Mr Bush referred questions on the subject to the Iraqi Prime minister, Mr Maliki said: "My coalition is not only with one entity. Mr Sadr and the Sadrists are just one component that participate in the parliament."

Despite Mr Bush's protestations of his confidence in Mr Maliki, the body language between the two men suggested continued tensions in the wake of Mr Hadley's leaked report, and the abrupt cancellation on Wednesday night of a dinner meeting between the two men and King Abdullah of Jordan. When Mr Bush asked the Prime Minister if he wanted to take more questions, Mr Maliki replied: "We said six questions, now this is the seventh - this is the eighth - eight questions."

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