President Bush told a key Iraqi power broker on Monday that the United States was not satisfied with the progress of efforts to stop the sharp escalation of violence in Iraq.
Mr. Bush met at the White House with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament. Al-Hakim said that he "vehemently" opposes any regional or international effort to solve Iraq's problems that goes around the unity government in Baghdad.
"Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraq's problems," al-Hakim said.
The president said he spoke with al-Hakim for more than an hour and said they had a "very constructive conversation."
"I assured him that the U.S. supports his work and the work of the prime minister to unify the country," Mr. Bush said, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
But CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that it was an odd scene. Al-Hakim, whom the U.S. government's own intelligence sources have linked to death squads, was being praised by the U.S. president.
"Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy," Mr. Bush said.
Al-Hakim told Mr. Bush that the situation in Iraq is not as bad as it seems. He said the picture presented by many media sources "is profoundly different from reality," Axelrod reports.
"We talked about the need to give the government Iraq more capability as soon as possible so the elected government of Iraq can do that which the Iraqi people want to secure their country from extremists and murderers," Mr. Bush said. "I told his eminence that I was proud of the courage of the Iraqi people. I told him that we're not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq. And that we want to continue to work with the sovereign government of Iraq."
Al-Hakim, after what he called a "very clear" meeting earlier with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told reporters in Arabic that "we have asked for the American forces to stay in Iraq" to enable Iraqi security to deal with terrorists.
Mr. Bush spoke with al-Hakim directly about Iran and Syria and the critical need for them to respect Iraqi sovereignty and stop destructive activity that undermines Iraq's unity government, a senior administration official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details of the meeting.
The official said it wasn't known whether al-Hakim specifically asked President Bush to enlist Iran's assistance. Al-Hakim told reporters that he vehemently opposes any regional or international effort to solve Iraq's problems that goes around the unity government in Baghdad.
"We reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue," the cleric, who speaks Arabic, said through a translator. "We cannot bypass the political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems."
Later, in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, al-Hakim said Iraq is interested in creating good relations with all neighboring nations, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Jordan.
But he said: "We do not want to distribute shares of power to neighboring countries, but rather we want balanced relations."
Al-Hakim said he talked with Mr. Bush about equipment, including armaments, that Iraqi security forces need. He pledged that the government would deal with all forms of terrorism, no matter where they originate.
He also said eliminating the danger of civil war in Iraq can be achieved only by decisive strikes against terrorist Baathists and extremist followers of Islam. "Otherwise we will continue to witness massacres being committed every now and then against the innocent Iraqis," he said.
Monday's developments came amid rising expectations about a new U.S. policy that Bush is crafting for Iraq — one that his advisers say will be announced within weeks. He is seeking information from reviews being done by the State Department, National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
It became increasingly clear that the administration was looking for Iraq alternatives well before the November elections, when Bush was adamantly defending his policies.
A day before the elections, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote a letter saying he had developed a list of alternative approaches for Iraq over a period of weeks. In his letter, obtained by The Associated Press on Monday, Rumsfeld said he and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told the president "a number of weeks ago" that they were considering alternatives for Iraq policy because changes were needed.
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin spoke exclusively with a former Rumsfeld ally turned harsh critic, who says Rumsfeld's letter was long overdue.
Rumsfeld also wrote that at his request, Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, had assembled a group to work on the issue.