George Bush and Nouri al-Maliki put back their summit in Amman until today amid political turmoil in Baghdad and a leaked US memo that casts embarrassing doubt on the ability of Iraq's Prime Minister to get a grip on the crisis.
The political stage for the meeting, hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah because Baghdad itself was deemed too dangerous, was set yesterday in the bluntest of terms by the memo from the US National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley. It portrays Mr Maliki as either ignorant or mendacious, either unable or unwilling to take the tough measures necessary to restore stability.
The leak to The New York Times of the five-page document in its entirety may or may not have been a deliberate move by the White House. But it came as Washington's entire strategy in Iraq seemed to be unravelling, with America's patience all but exhausted at the sight of US troops trapped in what amounts to a civil war.
It sets out what the Bush administration expects the Iraqi government to do and what steps the US might take to help the Prime Minister in whom, officials say, Washington still has confidence.
But the undeclared message is more sombre: that time is running out, as Republicans as well as Democrats increasingly conclude that Iraq is a lost cause and the war no longer worth fighting. The summit has thus taken on the character of a last chance before the bipartisan Iraq Study Group releases its long-awaited proposals for an exit strategy in seven days time.
Mr Hadley does not mince his words about Mr Maliki. The Iraqi Prime Minister, he says, "impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong, but was having difficulty figuring how to do so". His intentions " seem good", but the bloody reality in Baghdad suggested the Prime Minister was "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."
In Amman, confusion reigned, as Mr Maliki failed to attend a scheduled threeway dinner with King Abdullah and Mr Bush. Iraqi officials said he opposed the King's efforts to broaden the agenda to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Others saw his absence as a retort to the deeply embarrassing memo.
But the weakness of Mr Maliki was brutally underlined yesterday as parliamentarians and ministers loyal to the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr temporarily at least pulled out of the ruling coalition in Baghdad in protest at the Amman summit, saying it was "provocative and against the will of the Iraqi people".
In Washington, reports abounded of a major reorganisation of the 145,000-strong US troop presence that would send more units to Baghdad, where a reduction in violence is essential if the country is to be stabilised.
The Pentagon last night dismissed an ABC News report that US forces may abandon Anbar province, the heartland of Sunni resistance, where 20,000 Marines are tied down trying to contain the insurgency.
* Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, is visiting the Middle East today for talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.Her trip appears to be a response to Arab allies, who say a new US push for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is essential if the region's interlocking crises are to be tackled.Reuse content