Bush Meets With Iraq's Sunni Vice President

President Bush meets with the top Sunni leader in the Iraqi government, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, as the White House continues to review the situation in Iraq. Hashimi heads the Iraq Islamic Party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since he joined the government last spring, Hashimi's sister and two other relatives have been murdered by Sunni insurgents.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

We're going to begin this segment of the program talking about Iraq, what the public thinks about the war and the potential for a change in strategy on the part of the White House. Today the administration announced that President Bush is not likely to address the nation about the war until after the first of the year, not before Christmas as previously thought.

NORRIS: The president may announce a new approach. He may not. Either way, he continues to meet with leaders from Iraq and members of his administration to talk about the situation. Today, Iraq's Sunni vice president had his turn at the White House.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the meeting comes at a time when the U.S. is struggling to find ways to support moderates in Iraq's government.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Iraq's Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi has paid a heavy price for serving in Iraq's unity government. A Sunni Arab leader, two of his brothers and one sister were killed in the sectarian violence tearing Iraq apart. It was something President Bush spoke to at their Oval Office meeting.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In spite of this week and in spite of the pain in his heart, he's willing to work for a united Iraq and a peaceful Iraq. An Iraq that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself, a free Iraq that will be an ally in the war against extremists and radicals.

KELEMEN: Hashimi said he offered a frank assessment of the situation in Iraq to President Bush and he said Iraqis have no other option but success.

Vice President TARIQ AL-HASHIMI (Iraq): It is a great and real chance to get out of this present dilemma. It is a hard time that the Iraqi (unintelligible), but there is a light in the corridor.

KELEMEN: President Bush's spokesman Tony Snow says today's meeting and a visit by a top Shiite leader last week are part of the administration's strategy to support the unity government in Baghdad.

Mr. TONY SNOW (Spokesman, White House): It is important to have conversations, especially with those who are showing a willingness to support the Maliki government by developing a vigorous center within Iraqi politics that can draw together people across sectarian and geographic lines.

KELEMEN: The Bush administration has been frustrated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, particularly his dependence on a radical Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. There's speculation now that the U.S. is supporting efforts by Hashimi and other political players to form a new coalition and break Sadr's influence.

Sadr supporters have already launched a boycott of the government to protest last month's meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki and one member of Maliki's party, Hassan al-Sanaid, suggested in an interview today that Sadr's supporters will soon be permanently sidelines.

Mr. HASSAN AL-SANAID (Member, Dawa Party): (Through Translator) I believe Maliki can make some changes before the end of this year, and it will be the Sadrist ministers who will go in this reshuffle.

KELEMEN: Getting rid of Sadrists from the cabinet is one thing, but trying to isolate Sadr is a trickier task. That's according to Phoebe Marr, author of the book "The Modern History of Iraq." She says she doesn't expect Sadr to just sit back.

Ms. PHOEBE MARR (Author, "The Modern History of Iraq"): Sadr is extremely powerful on the street. He's got a militia, some of it under his control, some of it not, but in poorer areas such as Sadr City, he has a great deal of support. But he is not strong in Parliament and the cabinet. He's a newcomer with hardly any real credentials and he had to scramble to find people with any kind of a CV to hold ministerial positions.

KELEMEN: Marr says the U.S. should be supporting efforts to bring Iraq's fractious parties together in a different way, not just focusing on the political figures and their religious and ethnic affiliations.

Ms. MARR: That is to say, taking these political parties and seeing if you can't get alliances, alignments on the basis of interests and programs between and among these parties, which cut across ethnic and sectarian lines. And in fact, some of that's already being done in Baghdad.

KELEMEN: Iraqi politicians were cautious when asked today about the new coalition talks. One leading Kurdish politician told NPR in Baghdad that negotiations haven't reached any conclusions yet. There are rumors and predictions, he said, but nothing is certain.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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