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Bush asking Arab friends for Iraq help

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New York Times: As they try to arrest the downward spiral in Iraq and Lebanon, President Bush and his top diplomats appear intent on their strategy of talking only to Arab friends, despite increasing calls inside and outside the administration for them to reach out to Iran and Syria as well. The New York Times

By HELENE COOPER
Published: November 27, 2006

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 — As they try to arrest the downward spiral in Iraq and Lebanon, President Bush and his top diplomats appear intent on their strategy of talking only to Arab friends, despite increasing calls inside and outside the administration for them to reach out to Iran and Syria as well.

Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are traveling to Jordan this week for talks that will include Iraq’s prime minister and a number of Sunni Arab leaders, but will exclude those two nations, despite the influence both wield in Iraq and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, one of Ms. Rice’s most trusted aides, Philip D. Zelikow, announced today he is resigning his post as counselor. Mr. Zelikow, widely viewed as a voice of candor in the administration on the Iraq crisis, said in his resignation letter that he would return to teaching at the University of Virginia. While he cited a “truly riveting obligation to college bursars” for his children’s tuition, one administration official said that he has been frustrated with administration policy on Iraq, the Middle East, and even North Korea.

Mr. Zelikow’s resignation came amid signs of strain within the administration, particularly at the State Department, where career foreign service officials have argued for increased dialogue with Iran and Syria to try to stem the violence in Iraq and Lebanon. “We’ve got a mess on our hands,” said one senior State Department official, who, like others discussing the subject, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject publicly.

When Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice arrive in Amman on Wednesday, they will try to enlist help from Sunni Arab leaders to try to rein in the violence in Iraq by pressuring Sunni insurgents. That was part of Vice President Dick Cheney’s message to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during a brief visit on Saturday, administration officials said, and President Bush will repeat that entreaty with Jordan’s King Abdullah, as will Ms. Rice when she meets for scheduled talks with Persian Gulf foreign ministers at the Dead Sea on Thursday and Friday.

Specifically, the United States wants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to work to drive a wedge between the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has been behind many of the Shiite reprisal attacks in Iraq, a senior administration official said. That would require getting the predominantly Sunni Arab nations to work to get moderate Sunni Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki, a Shiite. That support would theoretically give Mr. Maliki the political backbone necessary to take on Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militias.

“There’s been some discussion about whether you just try to deal first with the Sunni insurgency, but that would mean being seen to be taking just one side of the fight, which would not be acceptable,” the administration official said, speaking under condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic practice.

But getting the Sunni Arab nations to urge Iraqi Sunnis to back Mr. Maliki in the hopes of peeling him away from Mr. Sadr is a tall order under any circumstances, and it was made even taller last week after the killings of more than 200 people by bombings in a Shiite district of Baghdad, the deadliest single attack since the American invasion. The attacks led to violent reprisals; vengeful Shiite militiamen attacked Sunni mosques in Baghdad and Baquba.

“We’re clearly in a new phase, characterized by this increasing sectarian violence,” Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Estonia for a NATO summit meeting prior to Mr. Bush’s meeting with Mr. Maliki. “That requires us, obviously, to adapt to that new phase and these two leaders need to be talking about how to do that and what steps Iraq needs to take and how we can support them.”

In return for helping on Iraq, the Sunni Arab countries have asked the Bush administration for a renewed push toward an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement. Mr. Bush has largely shied away from that longstanding demand, but things may be changing.

Ms. Rice may add two stops — Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the West Bank — to her itinerary this week, administration officials said. While a visit has not been finalized, Ms. Rice is considering meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as part of a new effort to push a Mideast peace plan.

Ms. Rice has argued in favor of stepping up work on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and several times this fall she has appeared to be on the verge of beginning a big Mideast peace initiative, only to be overtaken by other crises. But a cease-fire began Monday after Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to end five months of fighting in Gaza. While the cease-fire got off to a shaky start when Palestinian militants belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched nine rockets into southern Israel, American, Arab and European diplomats said this may be the most important chance in some time to end the fighting.

Mr. Olmert, in a speech on Monday, even suggested the cease-fire could set off a revival of peace efforts after years of stalemate.

A visit by Ms. Rice to the region could further prod those efforts, American officials said. “We have seldom seen the U.S. administration so focused on all of the constituent parts of putting the Middle East together as they are at this point,” one European diplomat said. “They seem to suddenly have got that this isn’t just about Iraq. It’s about a number of parts of the Rubik’s cube that they have to put together again.”

Beyond Israel, another side of that Rubik’s cube is whether America will directly engage Iran and Syria, something the administration remains loath to do, despite indications that a bipartisan study group co-headed by the former Secretary of State James A. Baker III will recommend a regional diplomatic initiative to include both of those countries. The pressure on the administration to begin talks with its foes is reaching a crescendo, with former administration officials joining the call.

“The Syrians are saying, ‘We can negatively affect the situation in Lebanon and hurt your friends, we can negatively affect Iraq, but that’s alright, don’t talk to us,”’ said Theodore Kattouf, President Bush’s former ambassador to Syria. “With diplomacy generally, if you’re not prepared to achieve your aims through warfare, then you have to engage in some horse-trading. Unfortunately, there isn’t much give-and-take between the U.S. and Syria right now.”

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