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Iraq summit to focus on ending sectarian violence

Halting violent sectarian strife in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, will dominate President Bush's summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki next week in the Middle East.

Al-Maliki is facing opposition from both sides as he works to halt his nation's slide into an all-out civil war, but the White House said Saturday that despite threats from Shiite and Sunni-Arab leaders, he is not expected to cancel his trip to Amman, Jordan, to meet Bush on Wednesday and Thursday.

"Security in Baghdad and stopping the violence is at the top of the agenda," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.

"The United States as well as Iraq has urged countries in the region to take a constructive role in rebuilding Iraq and helping to create conditions on the ground that lead to an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself."

Iran, the top U.S. rival in the region, had planned to have its own summit this weekend in Tehran -- a meeting viewed as a bid to assert its role as a powerbroker in Iraq. Tehran invited the presidents of Iraq and Syria, but Syria did not respond and Iraq's president said he could not get to Iran before Sunday at the earliest, because the international airport was closed to commercial flights following the deadly spate of violence that began late last week.

Bush will meet with al-Maliki after he attends a NATO summit in Europe. Bush's meeting with al-Maliki, coupled with Vice President Dick Cheney's hasty trip to Saudi Arabia, is part of the administration's stepped up diplomatic effort to bring stability to the region.

Cheney sought Saudi help on Saturday in dealing with Iraq's spiraling violence and other regional trouble spots where U.S. policy is on the line: Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Cheney's one-on-one meeting with King Abdullah lasted just two hours, but underscored the two allies' concerns over upheavals across the Middle East, which many Arabs blame on U.S. policies.

It was Cheney's four visit to Saudi Arabia as vice president. "They covered a wide range of issues," Cheney spokeswoman Megan McGinn said. "King Abdallah is a good friend and ally whom the vice president has known for 17 years."

On Saturday, a prominent Sunni religious leader warned that Iraq's escalating sectarian violence will spread throughout the Mideast unless the international community withdraws support for al-Maliki's government.

On the other side of Iraq's sectarian divide, Shiite politicians loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if al-Maliki meets with Bush in Jordan. That put al-Maliki in a difficult position because Sadr and his followers are a mainstay of his political support.

Bush also is under political pressure to find new ways to make progress in Iraq following the Democrats' victory in winning control of the House and Senate on Election day. In a Democratic response to Bush's Saturday radio address, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader-elect in the House, said U.S. support in Iraq will not go on forever.

"We will work with the president and our Republican colleagues in Congress to forge a new direction in Iraq because, clearly, the current strategy is not working," Hoyer said. "Sectarian violence continues to rage. Our brave servicemen and women continue to be maimed and killed. And, the war is not making our nation safer or more secure.

"In the days ahead, the Iraqis must make the tough decisions and accept responsibility for their future. And, the Iraqis must know: Our commitment, while great, is not unending."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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