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No sign of plans to heal Iraqi rift

President Bush on Thursday rejected calls for a measured withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, facing doubts about his ability to dampen violence, asserted his forces could take full control by June.

A day after publication of a leaked White House memo questioning Maliki's leadership capabilities, Bush shared a news conference stage with him and offered what sounded like unconditional support.

"He's a strong leader," Bush said. "He's the right guy for Iraq."

The president used the news conference in the Jordanian capital to get in front of reports that a special committee headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton would call for a phased withdrawal of troops to begin.

"I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," Bush said. But he said if there is talk of a timetable, "all that does is set people up for unrealistic expectations."

Maliki, meanwhile, declared in an interview with ABC News that Iraqi forces would soon be in a position to take over security for the country - a position U.S. officials have questioned.

"I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready," he said.

Neither Bush nor Maliki gave a clue as to how they might accomplish the difficult task of a security handover.

The problem is that more guns, military training or even more U.S. troops are unlikely to result in a strong, capable Iraqi force without Baghdad solving the underlying problem - sectarian militias infiltrating Iraq's government and police and engaging in reprisal killings that are tearing the country apart.

Despite continued promises, Maliki has done very little to curb such militias. That has become a key frustration of the Bush administration, according to an internal memo by a top Bush aide.

In that memo obtained by the New York Times, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said it was unclear if Maliki was simply refusing to take steps to slow the militias' power and drum them out of Iraq's security forces - or if he lacked the power to do so.

Publicly, the president said only that he was "reassured by (Maliki's) commitment to a ... a society in which people are held into account who break the law - whether these people will be criminals al-Qaida, militia, (or) whoever."

The Iraqi prime minister said publicly only that the al-Sadr political wing and its Mahdi militia are "just one component" of his ruling coalition.

All that leaves unclear if Maliki will take bold, new steps while Shiite-dominated death squads and their Sunni enemies engage each day in brutal bloodletting.

Bush did pledge that U.S. forces will stay in Iraq as long as needed. He gave strong words of support for the Iraqi leader, showing no sign of tension over Maliki's abrupt decision to skip an earlier meeting with Bush and Jordan's king.

Yet that Wednesday night snub also strongly hints at trouble.

The Bush administration has hoped to calm Iraq in part by getting Sunni insurgent sympathizers into talks with Maliki's Shiite-led government. It has pushed Sunni allies like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take the lead.

But Maliki's refusal to talk to Bush in front of Jordan's king showed a startling level of distrust toward at least one of his Sunni neighbors - distrust that can only hamper the U.S. effort.

It may signal even worse - the possible start of a regionwide Sunni-Shiite split, spilling over from Iraq, that America may be powerless to control.

Few things would be more harmful to Iraq than if Mideast countries began "taking sides" in its internal fight, sharpening the Shiite-Sunni split and the march toward all-out civil war.

No effort to avoid a full-blown civil war in Iraq can succeed without "a lasting political compromise between its key (Shiite and Sunni) factions," one expert, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said recently.

The meeting between Bush and Maliki showed little progress toward that.

Also Thursday

VIOLENCE: The U.S. military reported the deaths of two soldiers, and Iraqi officials said 47 people had been killed, including 37 bodies found dumped in various regions of the country.

FUNDING: The Bush administration is working on its largest-ever appeal for more Iraq war funds - a record $100-billion, at least, and that figure reflects cuts from wish lists originally circulating around the Pentagon. With $70-billion already approved for the budget year that began Oct. 1, and more money needed to replace lost or worn-out equipment, spending levels for 2007 easily will be at the highest since the Iraq war began in 2003.

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