US president plans war report in September

( LatWp ) - With pressure growing on both men to stabilize Iraq, President Bush called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to offer a new show of confidence on the first anniversary of al-Maliki taking office.

The discussion came as Bush faces growing political unrest at home over his war policies and increasing demands to force Iraqi political leaders to make their government more inclusive and their nation more secure.

In reported remarks Monday, Bush said ``an important moment'' in the Iraq war would come in September, when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, plans to deliver an assessment of progress. The president's comments, in an interview with Reuters, came as members of both parties in Congress and many in the administration increasingly view the September assessment as a deadline for improvements.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi army has begun to prepare options in case of a sudden U.S. exit, it was announced Monday. The move has been taken at the direction of the Iraqi defense minister.

Bush has spoken frequently with al-Maliki, spending some of his dwindling political capital supporting the Iraqi leader while also taking the unpopular step of boosting the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The phone call on Monday, placed from the president's Texas ranch where he was wrapping up a weekend visit, demonstrated anew the degree to which Bush needs al-Maliki to rein in the nation's fractious politics.

Bush interrupted a series of meetings, held Sunday and Monday with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to speak with al-Maliki.

During the call, Bush ``reaffirmed his confidence in the prime minister, and noted the courage he has shown during a challenging and difficult year,'' said deputy White House press secretary Tony Fratto.

``The two leaders discussed the importance of political progress in Iraq and the need to move forward with the key reconciliation initiatives to secure Iraq's democratic gains,'' Fratto said.

The White House spokesman said al-Maliki renewed his commitment ``to national reconciliation'' and to important but elusive legislative agreements such as one establishing an equitable distribution of Iraq's oil wealth to Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Asked whether al-Maliki had given Bush any commitments on the oil law and a review of the Iraqi constitution, another sensitive political issue, Fratto said, ``It's very hard to put a sense of timing on some of these things.''

``Progress on advancing these initiatives is not moving as quickly as anyone wants,'' Fratto added.

Failure to win reforms in Iraq has hampered Bush's efforts to win congressional support for additional funding for the U.S. military operations there. Fratto said such ``benchmarks'' are ``essential for bringing peace and security'' to Iraq.

In Baghdad, Iraqi defense minister Abdul-Qader Obeidi asked the army to prepare options for a possible withdrawal of foreign forces.

``This is just a contingency or emergency plan of action to be taken by the joint headquarters,'' said Lt. Gen. Nasier Abadi, the Iraqi deputy chief of staff, confirming an earlier Associated Press report. ``The military always plans for the worst.''

Obeidi ``asked for it two, three weeks ago, just in case,'' Abadi said.

Britain already has begun to draw down its forces in southern Iraq. But Abadi stressed there was ``a fundamental need for the coalition to steer us through till the end of the year.''

``That is the bare minimum,'' he said, citing the Iraqi army's logistics problems.

The sudden medical departures of two of Iraq's most influential leaders, Shiite Muslim politician Abdelaziz Hakim and the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, to seek medical care abroad has thrown additional uncertainty into the country's volatile political mix.

Hakim, head of the largest Shiite political party, confirmed Monday that that he was being treated for what aides have described as lung cancer and what he said was a ``limited tumor.'' He appeared on Iraqi television to announce that he had gone for treatment to Iran, his home during years of exile under the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Talabani has checked into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a series of medical tests, wire reports said. In February, Talabani, who is fighting obesity, was first rushed to a Jordanian hospital, where doctors said he was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.

The difficulties faced by the Iraqi government were underscored by a series of attacks Monday that included a mortar shell slamming into the roof of the Iraqi parliament building inside the fortified Green Zone. No casualties were reported.

Police in Baghdad recovered at least 24 unidentified bodies in the 24 hours ending Monday, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.

In other violence reported Monday, gunmen in three cars ambushed a minibus carrying off-duty Iraqi soldiers, triggering a gunfight that left at least three soldiers dead and four wounded, police said. The attack took place near Baqouba, in strife-torn Diyala, a religiously mixed province that has suffered escalating violence since U.S. and Iraqi forces began a 3-month-old clampdown in nearby Baghdad.

In southern Iraq, gunmen fired on a British resupply convoy in Basra, setting an Iraqi-owned fuel tanker ablaze, said Capt. Katie Brown, a British military spokeswoman. Bystanders dragged a burned corpse from the flaming truck and danced around it, according to wire reports.

The violence came as thousands of U.S. troops continued to search for three comrades abducted in a May 12 ambush south of the capital. Four other U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi were killed in the attack.

Gerstenzang reported from Crawford and Zavis from Baghdad. Times staff writer Ned Parker and special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.

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