Bush stresses opportunities in meetings on Iraq progress


WASHINGTON -- Seizing on a rare sequence of promising developments in Iraq, the Bush administration is putting special emphasis on high-level meetings being held next week to renew the search for ways to move the war-torn country toward stability and enable the United States to reduce its presence there.

President Bush said yesterday that his two days of meetings next week with senior U.S. officials, and then by video link with the new Iraqi prime minister and his Cabinet, would provide an opportunity "to discuss the way forward in Iraq, to analyze the new government, to look carefully at what their blueprint for the future looks like, and to figure out how we can help."

Bush and other administration officials took pains to emphasize that the meetings are not aimed at establishing a timetable for reducing the estimated 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. However, the White House believes that the war is at a potential turning point, officials said, because of the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of a new, democratically elected government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Zarqawi's death helps a lot," Bush said, referring to the U.S. attack Wednesday that killed al-Zarqawi, his spiritual adviser and four others near Baghdad. "Removing Zarqawi is a major blow to al-Qaida."

But, reflecting the administration's effort to not overstate the impact and thus face new criticism if insurgent attacks do not ebb, Bush said: "It's not going to end the war, and it's certainly not going to end the violence."

In the meetings planned for next week, Bush has scheduled a highly unusual daylong conference Monday at Camp David with much of his Cabinet and other national security advisers, including lunch with outside experts.

On Tuesday, while still at the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains near the Pennsylvania border, Bush and the other officials are scheduled to meet for at least an hour with their Iraqi counterparts, who will be at the other end of a satellite hookup at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's U.S.-controlled Green Zone.

Officials emphasized that the meetings were timed to take advantage of the establishment of the Iraqi government and were not tied to al-Zarqawi's death.

While al-Maliki is being closely watched for signs that he can improve the dismal security situation in Iraq, the Bush administration sees the arrival of a sovereign, democratic government as a particularly important moment enabling the new leaders to establish credibility in the eyes of the Iraqi people and other nations.

"Everybody views the completion of a truly unity government as a moment of opportunity," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "There's a window here in which it is important for them to show success."

Bartlett dismissed a call this week by Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, for the United States to begin withdrawing by the end of the year.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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