- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

President Bush yesterday bluntly told the leader of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite party that the United States is not satisfied with efforts by Iraqi political leaders to stop sectarian violence, which has spiraled out of control in recent months.

The Oval Office meeting came on a day when the White House announced that the president will meet Thursday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest ally in the Iraq war. That meeting will come just a day after Mr. Bush receives recommendations from a bipartisan commission charged with coming up with solutions to the nearly four-year-long war in Iraq.

After his hourlong meeting yesterday with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament and is a leading opponent of anti-U.S. Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the president said political leaders must step up to quell dissent among opposing factions.

“I told him that we’re not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq, and that we want to continue to work with the sovereign government of Iraq,” Mr. Bush said. “Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy.”

But Mr. al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said he “vehemently” opposes any regional or international effort to solve Iraq’s problems that goes around the unity government in Baghdad.

“We cannot bypass the political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems,” he said. “Therefore, we believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis with the help of friends everywhere. But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue.”

Yesterday’s meeting, which followed the president’s meeting last week in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, begins a new effort by the Bush administration to create a dialogue with Iraqi political leaders. Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet next month with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is a Sunni, and one senior administration official said top U.S. officials will meet soon with other moderate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders.

Still, the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq has prompted some U.S. critics to step up their calls for immediate withdrawal. “There’s two factions fighting for supremacy inside Iraq, and our troops are caught in between,” Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, said Sunday.

Mr. al-Hakim said Iraq can solve its own problems but told reporters after a morning meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “we have asked for the American forces to stay in Iraq” in an effort to help Iraqi security forces contend with terrorists.

“We will work very hard and seek all forms of cooperation at the international level and the regional level in order to defeat terrorism that it is trying to use Iraq as a base in order to sabotage the future of that nation,” Mr. al-Hakim said.

The White House yesterday did not rule out a possible meeting with Sheik al-Sadr. “I don’t know if al-Sadr would also be willing to entertain the option. It’s a very interesting question; we’ll go back and muse on it in a few minutes,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

The outreach to all political leaders in Iraq, Mr. Snow said, is designed to give the president the chance “to talk to significant leaders and make the case that it’s important for people to build together across sectarian lines, to take the measures necessary for national reconciliation.”

Mr. al-Hakim defended the U.S. role in Iraq, and said Americans are unaware of the advances taking place in Iraq.

“The Iraqi situation has been subjected to a great deal of defamation, and the true picture is not being presented in order to show a dark side of what’s happening in Iraq,” he said.

Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace after meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. al-Hakim endorsed proposals to create federal regions in Iraq, saying that concerns about such plans “are exaggerated.”

“Federalism definitely will not divide Iraq,” said Mr. al-Hakim. He said that religious — not secular — authorities were the only ones that could hold the country together.

“We should not resort to dealing with issues that may weaken the religious authorities, otherwise Iraq may be subjected to catastrophic storms that no power in the world could calm or control [or] return Iraq to its senses,” he said.

In a Fox News interview last night, Mr. Bush told Brit Hume he was pleased by the Shi’ite leader’s expressions of commitment to a unity government in Iraq.

“There is a lot of talk about Shia dominance to the exclusion of other folks in Iraq. I didn’t hear that at all — quite the contrary,” Mr. Bush said. “I listened to a man who understands that the way forward is for there to be a government of and by and for the people.”

Referring to his previous meeting with Mr. al-Maliki, Mr. Bush said both the prime minister and Mr. al-Hakim “understand that murderers must be stopped, that you can’t have a society, a constitutional government presiding over a society in which murderers are allowed to run free.”

• Sharon Behn contributed to this report.

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