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Bush, Maliki cancel meeting

By the time President Bush's long motorcade roared up the private road to King Abdullah II's hillside palace, the Iraqi prime minister's motorcade had already roared down it.

So much for the first of two high-expectation meetings between Bush and Nouri al-Maliki.

Accounts varied on who canceled Wednesday's three-way meeting - and why.

But it was generally viewed as a bad omen for efforts to find a new strategy for controlling spiraling violence in Iraq.

The cancellation came on the same day as disclosure of a classified White House document critical of Maliki and a political boycott in Baghdad protesting his attendance.

Instead of two days of talks, Bush and Maliki will have breakfast and a single meeting followed by a news conference this morning, the White House said.

The abrupt change was an almost unheard development in the high-level diplomatic circles of a U.S. president, a king and a prime minister. There was confusion - and conflicting explanations - about what happened.

Bush had been scheduled to meet with Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday night, and had rearranged his schedule to be in Amman for both days for talks aimed at reducing violence in Iraq.

The cancellation was not announced until Bush had already come to Raghadan Palace and posed for photographs with the king.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that the delay was a snub by Maliki directed at Bush or was related to the leak of a memo written by White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley questioning the prime minister's capacity for controlling violence in Iraq.

Bartlett said the king and the prime minister had met before Bush arrived from a NATO summit in Latvia. "That negated the purpose to meet tonight together in a trilateral setting."

However, Redha Jawad Taqi, a senior aide of top Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim who also was in Amman, said the Iraqis balked at the three-way meeting after learning the king wanted to broaden the talks to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With Maliki already gone from the palace, Bush had an abbreviated meeting and dinner with the king before heading early to his hotel.

The cancellation came after the disclosure of a classified White House memo, written Nov. 8 by Hadley. In one particularly harsh section, Hadley asserted: "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 did not dispute the leaked account, saying that on balance the document was supportive of the Iraqi leader and generally portrayed him as well meaning.

The president "has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki," said Bush spokesman Tony Snow, who added that Maliki "has been very aggressive in recent weeks in taking on some of the key challenges."

The memo recommended steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader's position, including possibly sending more troops to defend Baghdad and providing monetary support for moderate political candidates for Iraq's parliament.

The Iraqi prime minister also faced political pressure at home about the summit. Thirty Iraqi lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they were boycotting Parliament and the government to protest Maliki's presence at the summit.

The president was expected to ask the embattled Iraqi prime minister how best to train Iraqi forces faster so they can shoulder more responsibility for halting the sectarian violence and, specifically, mending a gaping Sunni-Shiite divide.

Some analysts suggested that the memo might actually help more than damage Maliki, showing distance between him and Bush.

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