When President Bush meets in Jordan today with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, it will be a moment of bitter paradox: As the Bush administration urgently searches for solutions to the violence in Iraq, American military and political leverage has fallen.
Dismal trends in the war - measured in a rising number of civilian deaths, insurgent attacks, sectarian onslaughts and U.S. troop casualties - have merged with growing American opposition at home to lend a sense of crisis to the talks.
Both Bush and Maliki face mounting pressure to stem the violence that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday is listing toward all-out civil war.
On Tuesday, Bush said: "My questions to him will be: What do we need to do to succeed?"
Why is Bush meeting with the Iraqi prime minister?
Analysts say Bush wants to assure Maliki that the United States is not going to pull out forces in a rapid and disjointed way. He also must tell Maliki in a straightforward way that the 150,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq won't be there forever.
What, specifically, does Bush want Maliki to do?
For months Bush has been pressing Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government to do two things: First, reach out to the minority Sunnis and assure them of fair access to government jobs and Iraqi oil revenue. And while winning that trust, disarm Shiite and Sunni militias. Bush will press for near-term progress on both fronts.
"Otherwise this civil war's going to get a lot worse," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
What is Maliki seeking from Bush?
Maliki wants Iraqis to know that U.S. forces will one day be out of Iraq. But Maliki also seeks assurance that American troops will remain long enough to fully train and equip Iraqi security forces, so they might be able to secure the country against the threat of civil war or a breakup of Iraq.
How bad is the situation in Iraq?
Since Bush launched the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the Pentagon reports that more than 2,8880 U.S. troops have died. Between 48,775 and 54,134 Iraqi civilians have been killed, according to Iraq Body Count, a London human rights group. In October alone, 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed, making it the bloodiest month of the war, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. Most of the bloodshed has resulted from sectarian violence pitting Iraqi Sunnis against rival Shiites.
How is this changing the situation for Bush?
The continuing bloodshed is a blow to U.S. efforts to build a stable, secure and democratic Iraq. After his fellow Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in Nov. 7 elections, Bush faces urgent political pressure to develop a new approach in Iraq. He has ordered policy reviews by his own National Security Council and by the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the same time, former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton are heading a 10-person bipartisan Iraq Study Group that plans to deliver its own policy recommendations in December.
Why are Bush and Maliki meeting in Jordan?
Jordan's King Abdullah is one of the few reliable U.S. partners who has credibility in the region. Sandwiched between Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Jordan is at risk by continuing regional instability. King Abdullah warned Sunday of the possibility of three regional conflicts at once: in Iraq, Lebanon and between Israelis and Palestinians. "We can possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands," Abdullah told ABC News.
What role is envisioned for Iran?
The New York Times reported Monday that the Baker-Hamilton study group would likely urge Bush to bring Iran into the effort to stabilize Iraq. Why? Iran is an important regional power with a long and troubled history with Iraq: The two countries fought a decade-long war in the 1980s that killed at least 1-million Iranians and Iraqis. Bush has accused Iran of providing support for Shiite militia groups and of fanning violence against Sunnis. He would like Iran to instead use its influence to discourage insurgent bloodshed and help strengthen Iraq's elected government.
Will Iran cooperate?
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met Monday with his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani. In potentially encouraging sign, Ahmadinejad pledged help to "strengthen security in Iraq." Predominately Shiite Iran has close religious and political ties to the Shiite majority in Iraq. But Sunnis and ethnic Kurds in Iraq are wary of these links and of Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs.
What about Syria?
Bush has accused Syria of maintaining a haven for foreign jihadists and of allowing them to use its border to shuttle agents and arms into neighboring Iraq. The bigger problem, though, appears to be Syria's efforts to undermine the democratically elected government in neighboring Lebanon. That's why former President Jimmy Carter, among others, has called for Bush to look at Iraq in the context of the region more broadly and to deal directly with Syria and Iran.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.