Iraqi spurns regional effort

Shiite leader allies with Bush in opposing talks with Syria, Iran

December 05, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- With a blue-ribbon commission about to urge President Bush to seek help from Iran and Syria in Iraq, a Iraqi Shiite leader with ties to Tehran said in the Oval Office yesterday that his country's problems could not be solved through such regional or international efforts.

Bush has balked at inviting Iran and Syria to help end the civil war there. Yesterday's remarks by Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite bloc in the Iraqi parliament, gave the president an important Iraqi ally on the question two days before the bipartisan Iraq Study Group is scheduled to deliver its report.

"We reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue," Hakim said after the meeting. "Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems."

He specifically rejected any sort of international conference to solve Iraq's problems, a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as required by White House ground rules.

Bush underscored his concerns in the private meeting, speaking "about Iran and Syria and the critical need for them to respect Iraqi sovereignty and stop destructive activity that undermines Iraq," the official said.

The Bush administration has promoted Hakim as a moderate voice in the Iraqi political spectrum despite ties he formed during 20 years of exile spent largely in Iran that suggest the Shiite cleric developed close contacts with the Iranian leadership.

Inviting Hakim to the Oval Office gave Bush an opportunity to hear a knowledgeable voice on Iran and a potential courier for any messages from Washington to the leadership in Tehran.

The meeting followed a week of Bush administration diplomacy on the Middle East that ended in disappointment for the White House after Arab leaders expressed concern over growing instability in Iraq and elsewhere.

Yesterday, Bush reaffirmed, in Hakim's presence, that "we're not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq" but that he wants to continue "to work with the sovereign government" there.

Though Hakim said any political solution must come from within Iraq, he appealed for assistance from "the international level and the regional level in order to defeat terrorism." He also said that he and Bush had discussed the arms and training that Iraq would need to meet its security needs.

The two met privately for about 20 minutes and with aides for nearly an hour. Fifty minutes had been allotted for the two meetings.

In a speech later to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Hakim called for a stronger U.S. military response to the sectarian violence involving militias, saying that "the deterring factors are not up to the level of their criminal activities."

"The strikes they are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts" and leave them standing "to resume their criminal acts," he said.

Hakim leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was established in Iran in 1982, providing a political home for Iraqi Shiite exiles during Saddam Hussein's rule. Members of an armed wing of the bloc, the Badr Brigade, have been accused of engaging in criminal activity under cover of official Iraqi security forces.

The White House official, reporting on the Oval Office discussions, said Hakim sought support for strengthening Iraqi security forces to "bring to justice those operating outside the rule of law."

Asked about inviting Hakim to the Oval Office despite his ties to Iran and the militia, White House press secretary Tony Snow said as the session was beginning that Hakim is an Iraqi leader and "not somebody who is beholden to Iran." He said Bush planned to discuss the militia activities with Hakim.

"What Mr. Al-Hakim has also done is he has talked about the importance of reconciliation within Iraq," Snow said. "He is a significant force in Iraqi politics."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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