Our man in Baghdad

By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service

Foreign leaders don’t get much better treatment from the White House than that accorded Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — being put up at Blair House, a press conference with President Bush, an address to Congress and a Bush-escorted visit with troops and their families at nearby Fort Belvoir.

It all seemed to indicate that al-Maliki and his government may be the Bush White House’s last, best hope for salvaging the Iraq venture.

The two leaders agreed on a plan to greatly step up the number of U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad in a concerted effort to secure the insurgency-ravaged capital. Meanwhile, the transfer of security responsibility to Iraqi forces elsewhere in the nation will be accelerated. Without security, other measures discussed by Bush and al-Maliki, like a proposed "compact" to bring international investment and assistance to Iraq, will be problematic.

There was some slight evidence of strain between the two leaders. Both used the word "frank" to describe their discussions _ diplomatese for strong differences of opinion. Al-Maliki called for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, which is not Bush administration policy. The Iraqi leader refused to denounce Hezbollah, outraging some members of Congress, and ignored a question about it at the press conference. But, as they say about the Mideast, he has to live there.

Bush changed slightly the rationale for the U.S. presence in Iraq: "Our priority is to help this government succeed. It’s in the national interests of the United States that a unity government, based upon a constitution that is advanced and modern, succeed."

Bush stressed that al-Maliki had requested that U.S. troops stay until the Iraqi government can protect its own people. Bush made clear that he was committed to this government and tried to discount the rising antiwar sentiment here. "He hears all kinds of things coming out of the United States, and I assured him this government stands by the Iraqi people," Bush said.

But al-Maliki had to be cognizant that the Bush government has only slightly more than two years to run, and that the clock is ticking on U.S. support.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.