AMMAN (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki flew to Jordan for crisis talks with U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday, prompting a radical Shi'ite faction to suspend participation in his government in anger.
Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Mehdi Army militia, was making good on a threat to boycott parliament and Maliki's coalition if the premier met the U.S. president.
Maliki is politically dependent on Sadr's faction, which helped elect him to his post. The group denounced his visit to Jordan as "a provocation to the Iraqi people".
Maliki's trip was already clouded by a leaked White House memo questioning his ability to rescue Iraq from bloody turmoil that claims scores of lives daily, including over 200 killed in a bomb and mortar attack on Sadr's Baghdad stronghold last week.
Bush himself is under growing pressure to find a new policy to prevent Iraq dissolving in a maelstrom of sectarian strife and to secure an honourable exit for 140,000 U.S. troops.
Before his talks with Maliki, Bush blamed al Qaeda for the violence and vowed not to pull troops out "before the mission is complete". He denied Iraq had already plunged into civil war.
U.S. misgivings about Maliki's leadership surfaced in a sometimes scathing memo written by national security adviser Stephen Hadley and published by the New York Times.
Hadley told Bush in the Nov. 8 document that Maliki needed political help and a possible shake-up of his seven-month-old national unity government of hostile factions.
It describes the Iraqi leader as a man who "wanted to be strong but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so" and questions whether he shares Washington's vision for Iraq.
"If so, is he able to curb those who seek Shi'ite hegemony or the reassertion of Sunni power?" the memo asks.
The White House said on Wednesday it had confidence in Maliki and wanted to strengthen his position.
Maliki flew into Amman, safe from Baghdad's rampant insecurity, several hours before Bush was due to reach the Jordanian capital from a NATO summit in Latvia.
Both men said they would discuss transferring more control to Iraqi security forces and the role other countries in the region could play to stem bloodshed and chaos in Iraq.
COLD SHOULDER TO IRAN
Bush has rejected direct U.S. talks with Iran over helping to stabilise Iraq, saying Tehran must first stop nuclear fuel enrichment. But he said it was up to Baghdad to decide on its relations with neighbouring Iran and Syria, both U.S. foes.
Maliki held preliminary talks with Jordan's King Abdullah, who, like other Sunni Arab leaders, fears rising Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, especially after the Lebanon war between Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
The king told the BBC earlier that Iraqi leaders must prevent Iraq being destroyed "in a whirlpool of violence".
In another sign of regional worry, a security adviser to the Saudi government predicted that Riyadh would use money, weapons or its oil power to prevent Shi'ite militias from "massacring Sunnis" once the United States began pulling out of Iraq.
"To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: the consequences of inaction are far worse," Nawaf Obaid wrote in the Washington Post. He said the opinions were his own, not the government's.
Bush and Maliki were due to meet for a dinner hosted by King Abdullah and for a working breakfast on Thursday.
The meetings were expected to be a give-and-take on how to improve the situation, and "not the president dictating terms," a U.S. official said. A bold announcement was not expected.
Bush's visit was unpopular with some Jordanians.
"This is a very sad day. Bush has become a symbol of bigotry and injustice towards Arabs and Muslims," said Mustafa Nimr, a 32-year-old engineer. "There he is slaughtering my brothers in Palestine and Iraq and is now hosted and feted by our leaders."
Bush, under pressure to change course in Iraq after his Republican party lost control of Congress in November elections, is to receive recommendations next month from a bipartisan panel headed by former secretary of state James Baker.
Hadley's memo said Maliki receives "undoubtedly skewed" information from advisers in his Shi'ite Dawa Party.
He seems well-intentioned, "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 actions".
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Alastair Macdonald and Aseel Kami in Baghdad, Tabassum Zakaria and Caren Bohan in Riga)
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