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Iraq, Afghanistan to dominate Bush's trip

WASHINGTON—President Bush travels to Europe and the Middle East on Monday to seek help with the two biggest problems dogging his presidency: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After a quick stop Monday in Estonia, Bush is to arrive in Riga, Latvia, for a two-day North American Treaty Organization meeting that will focus on the 26-nation alliance's struggle to secure Afghanistan against resurgent Taliban forces.

From Riga, Bush is to fly Wednesday to Amman, Jordan, for a hastily arranged meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, where they'll discuss ways to speed the transfer of security to Iraqi control.

"This is the `Everything is Falling Off the Table Trip' for President Bush," said John Hulsman, an analyst for the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Iraq is falling off the table, Afghanistan is falling off the table and (the Bush administration) has no goodwill at the bank. These are gigantic problems, and nothing is going to get done because the president is weak."

Bush's summit with Maliki comes amid waves of confusion and winds of potential change in the administration's Iraq policy. Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress earlier this month in an election that was largely a referendum on Bush and his handling of Iraq, and they're pressing for a way out.

The Maliki summit also comes shortly before a blue-ribbon commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., release a widely anticipated review of U.S. policy in Iraq. Separate reviews are under way at the White House and the Pentagon.

Even by Iraq's standards, October was a particularly bloody month. The latest United Nations report estimates that civilian deaths soared to a record 3,709, the highest monthly toll since the war began in 2003.

Sectarian killings are blamed on militia infiltration of Maliki's Shiite-led security forces. In recent weeks, Sunni and Shiite Muslim politicians in Iraq have unleashed scathing criticism of Maliki, calling him unfit to rein in the militias and keep his unity government intact.

"The problem is that Bush and Maliki don't comprehend the real problem," said Nadim al Jaberi, a leading figure in the Fadhila party, a Shiite political faction allied with the militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "They move to solve it from outside, going to neighboring countries like Jordan, Syria and Iran, without dealing with the problem inside."

Expectations for a breakthrough at the summit are low in Washington and in the Middle East.

"I hope the meeting comes up with fruitful results, though I think the situation has become so awful that the government hasn't been able to accomplish anything or even wanted to," said Adnan al Dulaimi, one of Iraq's leading Sunni politicians. "Bush and Maliki both want security to prevail in Iraq, but I'm afraid Maliki won't be able to fulfill that. He's not ready for it."

Improving security in Afghanistan tops the agenda for the NATO summit, even as the alliance continues to ponder its role in the world 15 years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Internally, some member states remain deeply divided over NATO's post-Cold War purpose and the nature of the alliance's role and missions beyond Europe," said retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, a former U.S. supreme allied commander in Europe. "The (Afghanistan) mission has posed problems for the alliance."

When NATO took the lead security role in Afghanistan in 2003, it was supposed to be the shining example of how it could successfully move from its original purpose as a deterrent against Soviet aggression to a military coalition that could assist in conflicts anywhere in the world.

But NATO has encountered tough sledding in Afghanistan.

Despite the presence of 40,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops, Afghanistan has become more dangerous and less secure. This year has been the bloodiest one since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention, which toppled the Taliban and drove al-Qaida out of Afghanistan.

Since then, Taliban forces have made an aggressive comeback, operating out of bases in neighboring Pakistan and flush with profits from record opium poppy cultivation.

Insurgent and terrorist attacks throughout Afghanistan have doubled from a rate of fewer than 300 per month in March to more than 600 in September, according to a recent report by the Joint Monitoring Board, a group of Afghan and foreign officials that monitors the performance of the fledgling Afghan government.

The average number of terrorist assaults in 2005 was 130 per month. The spike in insurgent violence has resulted in 3,700 deaths since January 2006—a rate four times greater than 2005's, according to the Joint Monitoring Board.

Bush administration officials acknowledge the violent surge, but maintain that NATO forces have dealt serious blows to the insurgency in Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces since July.

"So we don't feel that the situation is somehow one that is sliding away," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department's undersecretary for political affairs. "We feel this is a manageable situation, but it is certainly one of increased combat, increased threat, but NATO is meeting the threat."

Others aren't so sure. Ralston said it's been a struggle to get NATO nations to come up with helicopters and 2,500 more troops for Afghanistan. So far, the alliance has received a commitment of only 1,000 soldiers from Poland and 200 from Romania.

"After ... nations signed up to the mission, there was a reluctance to come up with the assets that were needed to do the job," Ralston said.

One of Bush's main goals at the NATO summit is persuading contributing governments to ease restrictions they've placed on their troops in Afghanistan. U.S., European and Afghan officials say the restrictions, called caveats, limit the distances that some units can move from their bases and prevent them from participating in combat operations, which weakens the overall mission.

The caveats are also breeding resentment within NATO. Soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have faced most of the Taliban fighting in south and east Afghanistan and suffered the most casualties, while other troops remain in safer areas.

"That has created a lot of tension in the other corners of Afghanistan that, frankly, are more secure," said Julianne Smith, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program. "There have been several requests, for example, put out to Germany to redeploy some of their troops to the south. Those calls have been met with deafening silence."

Analysts doubt that major progress will be made in Riga because, while relations between Bush and other NATO leaders have improved, the European public remains angry about Bush's go-it-alone approach to Iraq. Consequently, European leaders might resist easing the restrictions on their troops to avoid suffering political damage at home, Smith said.

"There's this residual feeling that `Oh, by the way, had you not invaded Iraq and done Afghanistan right the first time, we wouldn't be in this position,'" she said. "There's definitely an Iraq hangover that overshadows Afghanistan, Iran and other issues. As long as Bush is in office, Iraq will continue to haunt him."


(Douglas reported from Washington, Allam from Baghdad, Iraq. McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel in Washington and Zaineb Obeid in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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