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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Iraqi Leader, Bush Split on Israel

July 26, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki sought Tuesday to present a united front against sectarian violence in Baghdad, but their first White House meeting was overshadowed by deep disagreement over how to respond to Israel's attacks in Lebanon.

At a joint news conference to announce a plan to move more troops into the Iraqi capital, Maliki criticized Israel's airstrikes in Lebanon and called for an immediate cease-fire. His remarks drew fierce criticism from some members of Congress.

The Bush administration has repeatedly rejected calls for a quick cease-fire, saying such a course would allow the Islamic militant group Hezbollah to regroup and would leave Israel vulnerable to future attacks. The frictions with a Muslim ally who is dependent on U.S. support underscore the difficulties the administration faces in winning backing for its pro-Israel foreign policy in the Middle East.

Maliki said he had expressed his concern to Bush over "the size of the destructions that happened to the Lebanese people as a result of the military, air and ground attacks" by Israel. According to a translation, Maliki urged an immediate cease-fire "to stop the killing and the destruction."

The prime minister's views and inflammatory statements by other Iraqi officials -- including a parliamentary resolution branding the Israeli attacks "criminal aggression" -- prompted 20 congressional Democrats to call for the cancellation of Maliki's invitation to address a joint session of Congress today.

Republican leaders refused, but also expressed concern about Maliki's statements.

The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate condemned the prime minister's comments.

"Maliki's criticism of Israel's right to defend itself is unacceptable," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "Unless Mr. Maliki disavows his critical comments of Israel and condemns terrorism, it is inappropriate to honor him with a joint meeting of Congress."

Some Democrats were weighing a boycott of the speech, but Democratic leaders were expected to attend and were not encouraging absences.

Congressional Republicans were more guarded, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he hoped to get a better explanation of Maliki's stance in face-to-face meetings today. "It's very important that we have an opportunity as a body to ask questions and clarify some statements that have been made," Frist told reporters.

Bush called his White House meeting with Maliki "a remarkable, historic moment," noting that he was sharing a stage with a "freely elected Iraqi leader."

But the backlash threatened to undermine the purpose of Maliki's visit, which was to introduce Iraq's new leader to a U.S. audience and to underscore the joint commitment to end the bloody surge in attacks between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that have claimed thousands of lives over the last month.

Maliki's stance on the Lebanese conflict reflects his delicate position, caught between his reliance on the Bush administration for nearly all security and economic support and an Iraqi population dominated by Shiites largely sympathetic to Hezbollah, whose leaders and rank and file are Shiites.

Bush sought to play down the disagreement, saying his administration shared Maliki's concern for the government of Lebanon and its people, and was rushing aid to victims in that country. At the same time, he made it clear that the White House would not press Israel to end the offensive until Hezbollah's ability to carry out future terrorist attacks had been significantly degraded.

"We want to address the root causes of the violence in the area," Bush said. "And therefore, our mission and our goal is to have a lasting peace -- not a temporary peace but something that lasts."

Bush described his talks with Maliki on the topic as a "frank exchange," which came as part of a 90-minute morning meeting. More than an hour of the discussions involved only Bush, Maliki and an interpreter.

Bush appeared uncomfortable, however, when he was asked by an Iraqi reporter whether it was inconsistent for the administration to offer aid to displaced Lebanese while it stepped up deliveries of guided bombs to Israel.

"I don't see a contradiction in us honoring our commitments we made prior to Hezbollah attacks into Israeli territory," Bush said of the weapons sales, which were first reported by the New York Times.

Bush's disagreement with Maliki in some ways reflects how the war in Iraq and the conflict in Lebanon have inflamed Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Mideast. Although Maliki, a former Shiite activist, declined to condemn Hezbollah, Bush administration officials have pointed out that several Sunni-led regimes have criticized Hezbollah's attacks on Israel.

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