By TOM RAUM
President Bush said Tuesday a new plan to increase U.S. and Iraqi forces in the besieged capital of Baghdad will help quell rising violence that is threatening Iraq’s transformation to a self-sustaining democracy.
Al-Maliki, on his first trip to the United States since becoming prime minister two months ago, said he and Bush agreed that training and better arming Iraqi forces as quickly as possible, particularly in the capital city, was central to efforts to stabilize the country.
"And, God willing, there will be no civil war in Iraq," al-Maliki said, speaking through a translator.
The two leaders disagreed openly on how to end hostilities between the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon and Israel, with al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim leader, reiterating his support for an immediate cease-fire and Bush sticking by the administration opposition to one.
A group of House Democrats called on GOP leaders to cancel al-Maliki’s address to Congress on Wednesday. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he doubted he would attend and that there were a "large number of people (in Congress) who were uncomfortable" with al-Maliki’s condemnation of Israel’s attacks in Lebanon and apparent support for Hezbollah
Bush said that al-Maliki had asked for more military equipment from the United States and had recommended increasing U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolling Baghdad neighborhoods. "And we’re going to do that," Bush said.
The president said U.S. forces would be moved in from other parts of Iraq. He did not say how many, but Pentagon officials have suggested several thousands troops would be moved to Baghdad, including some now based in Kuwait.
There are roughly 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The administration is under increasing pressure from Democrats and some Republicans to bring a substantial number home by the end of this year.
Asked if the tense situation in Baghdad would alter the equation for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, Bush said troop level decisions will still be based on recommendations from military commanders in the field.
"Conditions change inside a country," Bush said. "Will we be able to deal with the circumstances on the ground? And the answer is, yes, we will."
The president and the prime minister met privately before the news conference to discuss strategy, then continued talks over lunch with a larger group that included Cabinet members and aides.
At the East Room news conference, Bush said al-Maliki was very clear in stating that "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."
It was not clear how many U.S. troops will be in Baghdad as a result of the new plan. About two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the number of Iraqi and U.S. troops in Baghdad had recently grown from 40,000 to 55,000.
Bush and al-Maliki met alone with only a translator in the room for about 70 minutes before others joined the talks, Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters.
Under the plan to beef up security in Baghdad, forces would comb different neighborhoods to establish a police presence, "giving some reassurance to the population there that, in a way, the sheriff has arrived," Hadley said.
Bush complimented the beleaguered leader for his courage and perseverance in the face of sectarian violence. Recent attacks have sapped political support for the more than three-year-old war in Iraq, in both the United States and Iraq.
On Lebanon, the administration insists that Hezbollah must first return two captured Israeli soldiers and stop firing missiles into Israel before any cease-fire.
"I told him (al-Maliki) I support a sustainable cease-fire that will bring about an end to violence," Bush said.
Al-Maliki sidestepped a question at the White House news conference about his position on Hezbollah.
"Here, actually, we’re talking about the suffering of a people in a country. And we are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another, or any government position," al-Maliki said.
Democrats criticized al-Maliki’s comments. "Prime Minister Maliki missed an important opportunity to state his position on Hezbollah, and instead left the impression that he does not oppose this terrorist organization’s outrageous attacks on Israel," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Kerry called on Maliki to strongly condemn the use of terror anywhere — including by Hezbollah against Israel — in his speech to Congress on Thursday.
Responding to the Democratic criticism, Hadley said "there’s an opportunity here I hope we don’t miss," and he urged lawmakers to take advantage of the fact that a democratically elected Iraqi leader was about to address Congress. "It’s been an issue for Republicans and Democrats, how to get Iraq right," the White House adviser said.
After al-Maliki’s speech to Congress on Wednesday, Bush was taking him to nearby Fort Belvoir, Va., for a meeting with U.S. troops and their families. Both leaders will "thank them for their courage and their sacrifice," Bush said.
The president said 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.
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.
U.S. officials believe control of Baghdad — the political, cultural and economic hub of the country — will determine the future of Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers captured six members of an alleged death squad in Baghdad on Tuesday, while attacks elsewhere in Iraq left more than two dozen dead.
Al-Maliki met Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon for about an hour. "He is very focused clearly on the Baghdad situation and he recognizes that it is not a military problem as such, it is a combination of political and military and economic," Rumsfeld said.
According to Pentagon spokesman Eric Ruff, no final decision has been made on exactly how many U.S. forces will be shifted to Baghdad, but that there will be a range of forces that include both U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.