Bush Postpones Meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister

President Bush has delayed his much-anticipated meeting Wednesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two leaders will meet Thursday, according to the White House. The postponement was announced just after Mr. Bush arrived in Jordan, where the talks will take place.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Amman, Jordan, where President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki are meeting today. Hi, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: What is on the agenda today between the two leaders?

WESTERVELT: Well the stakes are extremely high for both political leaders, Madeleine. Last month saw some of the highest death tolls in the war in Iraq for both civilians and American military forces.

This month the violence has continued unabated. And following the Democrats' win in midterm elections the president is under increasing pressure to come up with new initiatives for Iraq.

And analysts here say the president will really have to walk a difficult line in these meetings tonight and tomorrow between trying to strengthen and bolster Prime Minister al-Maliki and yet also trying to pressure him to do more to halt the blood shed and clamp down on sectarian violence as much as he can.

And as that leaked memo makes clear, there are some growing doubts, at least in the White House, about whether Prime Minister al-Maliki is up to that task.

BRAND: Now Prime Minister al-Maliki has to contend with another wrinkle. Shiite Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr today pulled his loyalists from the government in protest of this meeting with President Bush.

And I'm wondering if this is a serious move by al-Sadr and his supporters, a permanent move, or something just to make a statement for this meeting.

WESTERVELT: Well that's really the key question if this suspension by Sadr forces temporary or permanent. If it is the latter it could have extremely serious consequences for al-Maliki's already shaky, precarious government.

The prime minister is now in the tough position of trying to hold together his fragile power base back in Iraq amid continued violence and bloodshed and at the same time still, of course, very much needs the close cooperation and support of the American government.

And his supporters today said, quote, “This meeting is a provocation to the feelings of the Iraqi people and a violation of their constitutional rights,” end quote. And sources tell NPR that al-Sadr forces are saying this is a permanent break. But I think that remains to be seen.

BRAND: Why is this meeting happening in Amman, Jordan?

WESTERVELT: Well Amman certainly a much safer venue these days than Baghdad although security on the streets of Amman has been beefed up incredibly following last November's deadly hotel bombings. And security is extremely tight here today.

And Jordan's King Abdullah is a strong U.S. ally who rules over a relatively stable country in a difficult region. And there are certainly strong anti-American feelings on the street, especially among some of the Jordanian Palestinians who've settled here.

But I've been surprised that many Jordanians and Iraqi refugees that I've been speaking with, Madeleine, are voicing some cautious optimism and are proud of the fact that Jordan is playing a role here.

And they hope that the king can play a strong role in at least trying to bring Iraqi political factions together and to exert pressure also on the U.S. to try to do more to restart long stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace talks as Jordan certainly sees progress on that conflict as central to easing tensions across the region.

BRAND: NPR's Eric Westervelt speaking with us from Amman, Jordan, where President Bush and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are meeting today.

Eric, thanks a lot.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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