Bush, Iraqi PM agree to beef up Baghdad troops

story.bush.maliki.cnn.gif“Obviously the violence in Baghdad is still terrible,” Bush said during a joint White House news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Bush had praised al-Maliki’s signature program to improve Baghdad security during their last meeting in Baghdad in June.

Bush complimented the beleaguered leader for his courage and perseverance in the face of sectarian violence. Recent violence has sapped political support for the more than 3-year-old war in Iraq, in both the United States and Iraq. “He comes wondering whether or not we are committed. He hears all kinds of things coming out of the United States,” Bush said. “And I assured him that this government stands by the Iraqi people.”

Standing beside Bush during his first visit to Washington as prime minister, al-Maliki reiterated his call for an immediate end to hostilities between the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Israel.

“I also emphasized the importance of immediate cease-fire and call on international community to support the Lebanese government, to support the Lebanese people to overcome the damage and destruction that happened,” al-Maliki said.

The Bush administration opposes an immediate cease-fire, which Bush says would only lead to more violence in the future. “I told him [al-Maliki] I support a sustainable cease-fire that will bring about an end to violence,” Bush said.

The president added that he is concerned about Lebanese civilians killed and harmed by the Israeli assault.

Israel says it is targeting what is calls terrorist strongholds in Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods and towns.

On Capitol Hill, where al-Maliki is to address Congress on Wednesday, some lawmakers threatened to boycott the speech because the Iraqi leader has condemned Israel’s attacks in Lebanon.

Bush said that improved military conditions outside Baghdad will make it possible to move U.S. military police and other forces to the capital, where an estimated 100 people a day are being killed. The crimes, blamed largely on sectarian death squads, usually go unsolved.

“He believes and I believe that there needs to be more forces inside Baghdad who are willing to hold people to account,” Bush said.

Al-Maliki said the most important element of a new security program “is to curb the religious violence.”

Iraq’s government must have a policy that “there is no killing and discrimination against anyone,” al-Maliki said through a translator.

The Bush administration is pinning its hopes for a relatively swift withdrawal of most U.S. forces on the political and military success of the multiethnic government al-Maliki heads. Al-Maliki was the compromise choice to lead the government this spring after months of political infighting that frustrated the administration and Iraqis who had voted in free elections.

U.S. officials and al-Maliki have both said his government represents Iraq’s last best chance to establish a working democracy. Iraq has teetered at the edge of civil war for months.

U.S. officials believe control of Baghdad — the political, cultural, transport and economic hub of the country — will determine the future of Iraq. But the city’s religiously mixed communities have become the focus of sectarian violence.

Iraq’s army and police, which are heavily Shiite, have had trouble winning the trust of residents of majority Sunni neighborhoods. Al-Maliki’s plans for curfews and other measures have had no lasting effect.

Bush said that al-Maliki and Gen. George Casey, top U.S. commander in Iraq, have agreed to deploy more American troops and Iraqi security personnel in Baghdad in the coming weeks.

The new strategy will involve “embedding more U.S. military police with Iraqi police units to make them more effective,” the president said.

A senior Defense Department official said that part of a backup force that had been stationed in Kuwait was heading into Iraq. Some U.S. military police companies were being shifted to Baghdad, involving between 500-1,000 troops, as well as a cavalry squadron and a battalion of field artillery troops, said the official, who requested anonymity because the White House had not yet announced the plan.

In addition, the official said, at least two Iraqi military brigades will be brought into Baghdad. Forces are being shifted to meet changing security demands in different neighborhoods “to face the enemy where we think he is,” the official said.

There are generally about 3,500 troops in a brigade, and more than 800 in a battalion. Currently about 30,000 of the 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are in Baghdad.

Al-Maliki called the two leaders’ discussions thorough and fruitful.

“We are determined to defeat terrorism and the security plan for Baghdad has entered the second phase, and it’s achieving its objectives in hunting the terrorists and networks, and eliminating it,” al-Maliki said.

Bush, under political pressure to bring at least some U.S. troops home quickly, did not indicate that such a moment is at hand. The shift of troops to Baghdad is possible partly because of success in transferring control of some other areas from U.S. forces, he said.

“Prime Minister Maliki was very clear this morning,” Bush said. “He said he does not want American troops to leave his country until his government can protect the Iraqi people. And I assured him that America will not abandon the Iraqi people.”

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