(Mehdi Ghasemi ~ Associated Press)
As al-Maliki prepared to meet Bush, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani sought Monday to enlist Iran's help in quelling the escalating violence that threatens to tear apart the country. "We are in dire need of Iran's help in establishing security and stability in Iraq," Iran's state-run television quoted Talabani as saying after he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.
The increased pace of diplomacy comes as a bipartisan U.S. panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton is expected to put forth recommendations soon to the White House on alterations to Iraq policy. Seeking help from Iran and Syria was believed to be among the Iraq Study Group's proposal.
Looking ahead to the summit in Amman, Jordan, the Iraqi side viewed the talks as the most important between leaders of the two countries since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, according to the two top officials with intimate knowledge of planning for the Wednesday-Thursday meeting.
Iraqi officials believe the summit will deal with giving Iraqi forces more control over security.
The Iraqis expect President Bush to agree to such an arrangement, and they say al-Maliki will then ask for the Americans to start discussing a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, according to one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The second official, who spoke anonymously for the same reason, said American officials had indicated in preparatory talks in Baghdad that Bush was open to increasing the pace of the security hand-over.
"The responsibilities of U.S. troops will decrease when security is transferred to Iraqis, and that will mean the Americans have more soldiers here than they need," the second official said.
Also on the Iraqi agenda, the officials said, would be al-Maliki's insistence that the United States pressure its Sunni Arab allies in the region to stop what Baghdad claims is support for the Iraqi insurgency.
Lastly, al-Maliki wants to get an outline of the U.S. view of the strategic relationship that would exist as the Americans draw down their presence in the country, the officials said.
As the summit approached, Britain said on Monday it expected to withdraw thousands of its 7,000 military personnel from Iraq by the end of next year, and Poland and Italy announced the impending pullout of their remaining troops.
The Iraqi officials said they expected al-Maliki would brief Bush on the outcome of Talabani's meetings with Ahmadinejad.
Al-Maliki also was expected to explain his thoughts on how Syria, Iraq's western neighbor, could play a role in calming violence. Al-Maliki lived in exile in Syria during Saddam's rule.
As Iraqi officials reached out to both Iran and the U.S., speculation rose that Mideast peace might also be on Bush's agenda. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday delivered one of his most conciliatory speeches yet, and Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said it was possible that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would meet with Bush in Jordan, whose king faces new vulnerability because of violence in Gaza and floods of Iraqi refugees.
Jordan's King Abdullah said Sunday the problems in the Middle East go beyond the war in Iraq and that much of the region soon could become engulfed in violence unless the central issues are addressed quickly.
"We could possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands," he said, citing conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and the decades-long strife between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Key players in those conflicts are Syria and Iran, which has a major influence over fellow Shiites in Iraq, including the Shiite-led government.
The meeting between Talabani and Ahmadinejad, which was delayed for two days because of a security clampdown in Iraq, provided Tehran an opportunity to try to assert its role as the top regional power broker to counter Washington's influence on Baghdad.
During their talks, Ahmadinejad pledged Tehran's support in helping to improve security in Iraq.
"Definitely, the Iranian government and nation will stand next to its brother Iraq and will do every help it can to strengthen security in Iraq," state-television quoted him as saying.
"We believe a stable, developed and powerful Iraq is in the interest of the Iraqi nation, Iran and the whole region," Ahmadinejad said, according to the television report.
Iran had been trying to organize a summit joining Ahmadinejad, Talabani and Syrian President Bashar Assad, but Damascus decided against attending.
Talabani flew to Tehran on Monday after the government ended a three-day curfew on vehicle traffic and reopened the international airport. The curfew and closure were imposed after bombings Thursday killed 215 people in Sadr City, Baghdad's main Shiite Muslim enclave.
Iran's potential for heavy influence in Iraq is particularly troubling to the Bush administration. Many in Iraq's new Shiite-dominated power structure have deep ties to Iran, and many of the key players spent considerable time in exile in Iran during Saddam's rule. The two main Shiite militias in Iraq are believed to rely heavily on Iran for training, funding and weapons.
The United States has been estranged from the Shiite theocracy that has run Iran since the pro-U.S. shah was toppled nearly three decades ago, and the difficult relationship has only worsened as Washington accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons in disregard of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Thus, inviting Iran to become a formal player in an attempt to quell violence in Iraq would be an extraordinarily delicate diplomatic maneuver for the White House.
It faces the same problem with Syria, which the United States has basically shunned in recent years, especially since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syrian agents have been implicated in that crime and the U.S. has pointed to Damascus in the killing last week of another anti-Syrian Lebanese leader, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.