AMMAN, JORDAN -- A highly anticipated meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush was abruptly canceled yesterday, hours after the disclosure of a White House memo questioning al-Maliki's ability to pacify his country and after a Shiite bloc announced a boycott of the Baghdad government.
The two leaders were scheduled to go ahead with a breakfast and joint news conference this morning before Bush returns to Washington, but yesterday's developments threatened to spoil a summit that administration officials had hoped would demonstrate progress in devising strategies for stemming civil strife in Iraq.
Instead, White House officials spent the day insisting they had faith in al-Maliki despite the harsh content of the leaked memo and struggling to explain why a meeting that had been on the president's calendar for days was suddenly scrubbed.
Meanwhile, loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr boycotted the government in protest of al-Maliki's meeting and denounced Bush as "the biggest representative of evil in the world."
Other Iraqi politicians, however, dismissed the gesture as political posturing aimed at al-Sadr's militant base, millions of mostly impoverished Shiites in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
The boycott appears to fall short of al-Sadr's threat last week to withdraw from the government. His movement controls 30 seats in parliament and several ministries, enough to topple the prime minister if they were to quit the government.
Senior Bush aides offered at least four explanations for the cancellation - finally dispatching a more junior official to tell reporters late yesterday that al-Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah II had decided mutually that a three-way conversation was not necessary.
The Jordanian and Iraqi leaders had met earlier in the day and sent word of their decision to Bush as the president flew to Amman from a NATO meeting in Latvia. White House officials insisted the change was not a snub in response to the memo, disclosed yesterday by The New York Times. Nor was it related, they said, to a boycott by Shiite legislators affiliated with al-Sadr.
"No one should read too much into this," said Dan Bartlett, a Bush adviser.
Bush and Abdullah met privately for 30 minutes before joining their aides for a dinner lasting more than an hour. They discussed the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon and Syria but did not focus on Iraq, officials said.
Despite recent assurances from Bush and his aides that the president would use his meetings in Amman to ask tough questions of al-Maliki about his plans to stem the violence in Iraq, Bartlett said the initial gathering had been foreseen as "more of a social meeting anyway."
"Look, they were not going to be doing a full-detail discussion in a [three-way] setting about Iraq and the future of Iraq and the strategy anyway. That just wouldn't be appropriate," Bartlett said.
Still, the surprising change of plans suggested more was at work than a scheduling matter among friends.
Bush rarely deviates from plans - and officials acknowledged that they departed Latvia with the understanding that he would meet with al-Maliki that night.
The Jordanians and Iraqis offered different explanations for the cancellation.
A royal court source said that Abdullah and Bush met longer than expected and had to cancel the meeting with al-Maliki. The source said al-Maliki could be using the delay, requested by Abdullah, for political advantage in calming the al-Sadr movement.
"The king and Maliki saw each other for an hour and a half this afternoon and Maliki's meeting Bush tomorrow," the source said. "The king and Bush were supposed to talk for an hour and half, but the meeting went longer because of discussion about the Palestinian issue. This was a matter of rescheduling, nothing else. It wasn't Maliki's decision."
The source suggested that al-Maliki might be claiming that he canceled the meeting as a way to appease hard-liner al-Sadr.
All told, a day that the White House had hoped might showcase Bush taking charge in Iraq just weeks after midterm election voters rebuked his policies turned ugly for the administration.
The internal memo, written Nov. 8 by National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, hinted at rising tensions between Washington and Baghdad.
"His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change," the memo says of al-Maliki, according to a text posted on The New York Times Web site.
"But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."
Administration officials said the memo was a "hard look, a probing look" at conditions in Iraq - but should not be interpreted as a criticism of al-Maliki.
Peter Wallsten and Solomon Moore write for the Los Angeles Times.