Iraqi Prime Minister Visits the White House
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is likely to figure into today's meeting between President Bush and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi leader has strongly condemned Israel's military offensive in Lebanon. And he said yesterday he feared it will be, quote, a great push toward fundamentalism.
Today's meeting at the White House is a first for al-Maliki. He and President Bush are expected to discuss the deadly sectarian violence in Baghdad and plans to move more U.S. troops into the Iraqi capital.
NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
Bush administration officials won't use the word civil war when describing the violence in Iraq's capital, but they do acknowledge that sectarian violence in Baghdad is now the biggest threat facing Iraq. White House spokesman Tony Snow says this will be one of the main issues on the agenda during President Bush's meeting with Prime Minister Maliki.
Secretary TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): There is an attempt in Baghdad to create as much chaos and havoc as possible, and it's important to make sure that we address this.
KELEMEN: The U.S. is expected to address this by sending more American troops into Baghdad. But Snow made no firm announcements ahead of the meeting. He said only that the U.S. is trying to adjust to new realities on the ground.
Sec. SNOW: We're working with the government to say, okay, what can we do? What can we do to go ahead and get into those neighborhoods, deal with sectarian violence, but also deal with the fact that in some cases, it really is just gangs of rowdies.
KELEMEN: A recent U.N. report detailed an increase in the civilians death toll in Iraq over the past two months, estimating that about a hundred people die a day as a result of the violence between Sunnis and Shi'a, as well as the ongoing insurgency.
Prime Minister Maliki told the BBC on a visit to London yesterday that security is a main issue for his trip.
Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) Yes, the United Nations report is correct. And we still have many, many bodies in Baghdad hospitals, in the central hospital. And there's a sectarian issue. But the political leaders have succeeded and they are working on putting an end to the sectarian issue. And there are continuing efforts in that direction. Civil war will not happen in Iraq.
KELEMEN: Phebe Marr, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, says the U.S. would have to flood Baghdad with security forces to get a handle on the situation, and that would be just a temporary fix. The real solution, she says, is training Iraqi Police.
Dr. PHEBE MARR (Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace): Trying to get death squads, which have infiltrated the police, out of the police, reforming the Ministry of Interior, and training up local police that can supplant militias. That is going to be a long and very challenging job, and frankly, we've only started on it.
KELEMEN: Politically, this is a tricky time for the new Iraqi leader to visit Washington. Maliki has complained bitterly about Israel's military campaign against Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militia in Lebanon. He's called for an immediate ceasefire, in sharp contrast to President Bush's support for Israeli action to weaken Hezbollah.
Phebe Marr is not surprised that Maliki has been outspoken since he lived in exile in Syria and spent time in Lebanon.
Dr. MARR: He can't be seen to be undercutting his own support. He comes from a Shi'a party. He comes in a situation in which sympathy for Lebanon is very strong, and the chief underpinning of his party in parliament is even outflanking him on support for Lebanese.
KELEMEN: Marr expects Maliki will temper his remarks on Lebanon while on a visit to Washington, especially when he addresses the U.S. Congress on Wednesday. Before coming to Washington, the Iraqi prime minister warned that the violence in Lebanon could lead to further extremism in his country.
Prime Minister MALIKI: (Through translator) What is going on in Lebanon, and what we, in Iraq, see on television, will have a negative affect on the process of stability in Iraq.
KELEMEN: His visit to Washington has already revived a debate in Congress about how long the U.S. should stay in Iraq. Maliki has been careful to avoid answering questions about this, though he says he doesn't expect foreign troops to stay in Iraq for decades, or even years. U.S. military officials say they first have to stabilize Baghdad.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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