- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

From combined dispatches

President Bush spoke to seven Iraqi political leaders yesterday in an effort to defuse the sectarian violence that threatens the goal of a self-sufficient Iraq free of U.S. military involvement.

Mr. Bush’s extraordinary round of early morning telephone diplomacy involved his first conversations with Iraqi leaders since the bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine that prompted days of reprisal attacks.

Fears exist in Baghdad and Washington alike that Iraq could be on the brink of civil war nearly three years after the U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime. The violence put a halt to talks on the formation of a unity government, a step regarded as key to demoralizing the Sunni-dominated insurgency and setting the stage for the end of the U.S. military presence there.

“The president congratulated Iraq’s leaders for their strong leadership and their efforts to calm the situation and for their statements against violence and for restraint,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.

Mr. Bush “encouraged them to continue to work together to thwart the efforts of the perpetrators of the violence to sow discord among Iraq’s communities,” Mr. Jones said.

In calls that took place over about an hour, Mr. Bush did not speak with any of Iraq’s influential religious leaders. Instead, he chose the most powerful representatives of each of Iraq’s main political groups: Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’ite; the head of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite political party and the country’s most powerful Shi’ite politician, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim; Iraqi National Assembly president Hajim al-Hassani, a Sunni; Tareq al-Hashemi, a leader of the main Sunni coalition; Iyad Allawi, a former Iraqi premier who’s a secular Shi’ite with Sunni allies; Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; and Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

Mr. Bush pressed each of the leaders to find a way to restart U.S.-backed negotiations among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to fashion a permanent government. The largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament said yesterday it will reconsider its decision to pull out of the talks if Mr. al-Jaafari follows through on promises that the government will act to ease the crisis.

“The president underscored his support for Iraq’s efforts to build a government of national unity,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Bush expressed his condolences for Wednesday’s bombing of the golden-domed Askariya shrine in Samarra and the cycle of retaliatory attacks that followed, Mr. Jones said.

Nearly 200 have died, and scores of Sunni and Shi’ite mosques have been damaged.

Also yesterday, Mr. Bush defended the Medicare prescription-drug program during his weekly radio address. He touted it as a money-saving benefit for seniors, despite a barrage of criticism over the plan’s troubled rollout.

He said the drug benefit modernized Medicare and “provides seniors with more choices and gives them better access to prescription drugs.”

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