President Bush on Thursday rejected calls for a measured withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, facing doubts about his ability to dampen violence, asserted that his forces could take full control by June.
A day after publication of a leaked White House memo questioning al-Maliki's leadership capabilities, Mr. Bush shared a news conference stage with him and offered what sounded like unconditional support. "He's a strong leader," President Bush said. "He's the right guy for Iraq."
Still, the president and his advisers acknowledged formidable challenges for the Iraqi leader in quelling rising sectarian violence.
"There is a real sense of urgency but there is not a sense of panic," said Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush's national security adviser and the author of a leaked memo that underscored doubts about al-Maliki.
In an interview after the summit Thursday, al-Maliki told CBS News anchor Katie Couric that he was "very happy" with his meeting with President Bush.
"I reminded both of us of our victory in Iraq — the victory of democracy and freedom against dictatorship," al-Maliki said.
When al-Maliki returned back to Baghdad Thursday, he repeated the one message from recent days that Iraqis wanted to hear: "We will gradually dispense with the need to have international forces in Iraq."
But, as CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, that word, "gradually," is an admission that Iraq's defense ministry may not be able to take on that job as soon as is expected by some. The Iraqi army now has almost 119,000 members — that's 10 divisions. Only one, responsible for a relatively stable area south of Baghdad, currently reports to Iraq's prime minister; a second is in the process of transferring command. The others are under control of the coalition and are still riddled with problems, from inadequate training to shortages of equipment, Palmer reports.
The president used the news conference in the Jordanian capital to get in front of reports that a special committee headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton would call for a phased withdrawal of troops to begin.
"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," President Bush said. But he said if there is talk of a timetable, "all that does is set people up for unrealistic expectations."
A source close to the study group tells CBS News national security correspondent David Martin that the commission's goal "is a change in the primary mission from combat to support." The bipartisan panel is expectednext week.
In an interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Couric that there have been questions about al-Maliki's leadership. But, she said, "This is someone when you look in his eyes, that you know his commitment to his people. You know that he has one of the most difficult jobs that one can imagine in the international system."
Al-Maliki, meanwhile, declared in an interview that Iraqi forces would soon be in a position to take over security for the country — a position U.S. officials have questioned.
"I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready, to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready," he said.
It's not the first time al-Maliki has spoken of a six-month time frame for having Iraqi soldiers and police up to speed. But his latest words could be seen as implicit OK for the U.S. to prepare for the gradual withdrawal that is expected to be recommended by the Baker-Hamilton commission.
On the Air Force One flight back to Washington, Hadley said Mr. Bush would not act immediately on Iraq policy in light of the commission's coming report, but in "weeks rather than months."
"This is an important report," he said. "We are at an important stage on the issue of Iraq and it's not something we should shoot from the hip on."
When speaking to reporters after the morning summit, President Bush's message sounded more like "stay the course" than "change the course," CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.
Rising opposition to the war contributed to the Republican loss of both houses of Congress in midterm elections, and increasing calls for a change in strategy are coming from Democrats and many Republicans. Mr. Bush acknowledged the clamor and said he understood how a withdrawal might be popular.
Still, he declared, "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."
Mr. Bush said he wanted to begin withdrawing troops "as soon as possible. But I'm a realist because I understand how tough it is inside of Iraq."
There are about 140,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. In fact, the Pentagon is developing plans to send in four more battalions — about 3,500 troops — early next year, partly to boost security in Baghdad,
Mr. Bush said he and al-Maliki agreed to speed the training of Iraqi security forces and turn over more military responsibility to Iraqis.
The get-together got off to a rocky start when al-Maliki abruptly pulled out of a planned meeting Wednesday with Mr. Bush and summit host King Abdullah II of Jordan.
But al-Maliki has since said he did not mean to snub President Bush, and CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante said it was "all smiles, no tension" when the two leaders met on Thursday. "The president went out of his way to express confidence in al-Maliki," said Plante.
The two leaders seemed to regain their footing Thursday as they shared a platform at a joint news conference.
"He's a strong leader who wants a free and democratic Iraq to succeed," Mr. Bush said. "No question it's a violent society right now. He knows that better than anybody. He was explaining to me that occasionally the house in which he lives gets shelled by terrorists who are trying to frighten him," Mr. Bush said.
Al-Maliki thanked Mr. Bush for his support.
One issue of discord was sounded: U.S. concern over al-Maliki's links to a heavily armed Shiite militia blamed for much of the country's sectarian violence and its leader, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
At their news conference, Mr. Bush sidestepped a question about al-Sadr and deferred to al-Maliki.
"My coalition is not with only one entity," the Iraqi leader said. "Mr. al-Sadr and Sadrists (his political organization) are just one component."
Lawmakers and cabinet ministers loyal to al-Sadr are boycotting Iraq's parliament and government to protest al-Maliki's meeting with Mr. Bush. During the joint news conference, al-Maliki called for an end to the boycott.
According to a senior al-Maliki aide, Mr. Bush and Rice earlier Thursday pressed the Iraqi prime minister to do more to disband the militia loyal to al-Sadr and other such independent military units. "It is not a big problem, and we will find a solution for it," al-Maliki told Mr. Bush, according to the al-Maliki aide, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the information.
"Now, as I've been saying, the whole goal here is to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis and to give them enough capability to take those responsibilities," Rice told Couric. "Obviously, as those responsibilities are transferred, as the capability improves, then American forces will be less in evidence and less needed. That's a natural outcome."
A senior U.S. administration official who was present at Thursday's breakfast between the full U.S. and Iraqi delegations said there was a discussion of al-Sadr and the role of unsanctioned militias in Iraqi violence.
It was clear that al-Maliki recognizes this as a challenge his government must overcome, said the official.
On another sticking point, the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq, Mr. Bush reiterated his opposition to overtures to Iran to help with stabilizing the country. In addition to Iran's nuclear ambitions, "I believe the Iranians fear democracy," Mr. Bush said.
But al-Maliki said he wanted to work with Iraq's neighbors, suggesting he wasn't opposed to closer ties with countries such as Iran and Syria.
After the news conference Mr. Bush immediately left for Washington, arriving at mid-afternoon from a four-day trip that also had taken him to the Baltic nations of Estonia and Latvia, where he attended a NATO summit.
The president will spend the next couple of weeks weighing not only the recommendations of the Baker/Hamilton commission, but two internal reviews as well, Axelrod reports.