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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 July 2006, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
Leaders uneasy over Iraq's future
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki with President George Bush
Both leaders seemed unsure about who should answer questions
Neither man talked about failure, nor were they likely to, but that was the subtext to the meeting between US President George W Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The security operation in Baghdad, which the Iraqi leader launched six weeks ago - and which Mr Bush had endorsed during his unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital last month - has not produced results.

Or, more accurately, it has produced the wrong ones.

The upsurge in sectarian violence which has coincided with the crackdown, has seen the Iraqi civilian death toll rise to about 100 per day.

The US military estimates that there have been 40% more major attacks in Baghdad in July, than in previous months.

Ill-at-ease

It has all led a sombre-looking President Bush to approve what a White House official has called the "reshufflement" of American troops in Iraq; essentially, beefing up their numbers in Baghdad.

The scale and timing of the redeployment were not revealed during the White House news conference, although the president's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, later gave some details of the new security plan, which he described as taking a "more neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood approach".

What the joint news conference did seem to do, though, was shed light on the president's state of mind and on his developing relationship with Mr Maliki, a Shia politician, who is - at once - Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister and - for some - America's last hope for achieving a stable democracy.

Aftermath of car bomb in Sadr City on Sunday
There have been an increasing number of attacks and killings

In Baghdad last month, it was Mr Bush, the guest, who seemed to be calling the shots.

His trip there was a political, diplomatic and security event, with his host apparently unaware of his arrival, until five minutes before the US president appeared on his doorstep.

On home territory, though, at a scheduled news conference, Mr Bush looked strangely ill-at-ease.

Although he was both welcoming and supportive of Mr Maliki, he was not his usual forceful self; often speaking away from the microphone, as if to betray a lack of confidence in the message.

'Terrible' violence

Whether or not this reflects a sense of pessimism in the White House, it is certainly consistent with the growing mood of realism that's been on display over the past few weeks.

You could hear that in the president's description of the violence in Baghdad as "terrible" and in the care he took to say that Mr al-Maliki had called for US troops to stay in the region.

There was none of the usual talk of American troops standing down as Iraqi troops stand up. In the current crisis, everyone is forced to stand together.

At least, that is true for Iraq. It would have been impossible to paper over the splits between the two leaders over Lebanon and, so, they didn't really try to.

Troops in Baghdad
Security plans to rein in the violence have failed so far

President Bush stressed America's commitment to providing Lebanese civilians with humanitarian assistance, but he and his guest avoided answering such awkward questions as "What was Iraq's view of Hezbollah?"

It all made for a rather awkward occasion. At one point there was an almost comic back and forth between the two leaders over who should answer a question - not helped by the translator's delay.

And, even at the very end of the news conference, when the two men were walking away, there was another potentially embarrassing moment.

The Iraqi prime minister had only gone a few steps, when he spun around and strode back to the lectern. Was he so determined to have the last word, that he would make such an obvious breach of diplomatic protocol?

No. He had simply forgotten his notes.





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