President Bush is stepping into Iraq's political divide, meeting with a top Shiite power broker at the White House next week and with the nation's Sunni vice president in January.
The president is under pressure to decide a new blueprint for U.S. involvement in Iraq, where sectarian violence threatens all-out civil war. The meetings suggest that Bush wants to become more personally involved in trying to bring warring factions together.
Just back from meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday in Jordan, Bush is reaching out on Monday to another Shiite politician, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.
The White House said Bush's meeting with Hakim is part of a series of consultations he's having with top Iraqi officials.
To show he's not choosing sides, Bush is planning to meet next month with Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose the president's advance schedule, the Associated Press reported. Bush met with a top Kurdish official at the White House Oct. 25.
"I think this is actually a reasonably clever move (on Bush's part) to try to regain the initiative," said Thomas Donnelly, a senior adviser in the Center for Security and International Studies' international security program. "It also puts pressure on al-Maliki. Although they're going to stick with al-Maliki, they're going to hedge their bets, kind of prepare for a kind of Plan B on that front."
Hakim, who backed a rival candidate over Maliki in the prime minister's race this year, is leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest party in Maliki's governing coalition.
Also Friday ...
SECURITY HANDOVER: Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, a U.S. commander in northern Iraq, promised to turn over four Iraqi army divisions to Iraqi control by March. He said U.S. troops probably would continue to support Iraqi forces.
FIGHTING: Iraqi forces backed by U.S. helicopters swept through the poor mostly Sunni-Arab Fadhil area of Baghdad in house-to-house fighting that killed at least three Iraqis and wounded 11, police said. State-run Iraqiya TV said 43 suspected insurgents were taken into custody during searches. U.S. forces conducted separate raids in other areas of central Iraq, killing two insurgents and wounding an Iraqi woman the militants were using as a "human shield," the U.S. command said. Scattered sectarian violence elsewhere killed 12 other people. An Interior Ministry official said 1,846 civilians were killed in Iraq in November, a 43 percent increase from the estimated toll in October.