The leader of a key Shiite Muslim faction in the Iraqi government told President Bush on Monday that his country's problems could not be solved by enlisting the help of Iran and Syria, as a blue-ribbon commission is expected to recommend.
The remarks by Abdelaziz Hakim, whose Shiite political party holds the highest number of seats in the parliament, gave the president an important Baghdad ally in his opposition to such an overture, 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."
Hakim rejected any international conference to solve Iraq's problems, a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with White House ground rules. And Bush underscored his concerns in the private meeting, speaking directly "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 Iraqi voice despite ties he formed during 20 years of exile spent largely in Iran.
Hakim's invitation to the Oval Office gave Bush an opportunity to hear an informed voice on Iran, as well as 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.
On Monday, Bush renewed his declaration, in Hakim's presence, that he was "not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq," but that he wanted to continue "to work with the sovereign government" there.
Even as Hakim said that the political solution must come from within Iraq, he reached out 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. A total of 50 minutes had been allotted for the two meetings.
In a speech later to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Hakim called for a stiffer U.S. military response to violence by 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," he said.
Hakim leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. It 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 group, the Badr Brigade, have been accused of engaging in criminal activity under the cover of 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."
Pressed on Hakim's ties to Iran and the militia, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said as the session was getting underway that Hakim was 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."
In extensive comments about Hakim during an interview with Fox News Channel, Bush said he came away from the meeting convinced that Hakim was committed to a unity government. Bush also said he had heard no reference to Shiite dominance to the exclusion of others.
In a reference to the various militias, Bush said that Hakim saw no place for murderers in a constitutional government.
The president used the Fox interview to counter some of the criticism in the run-up to Wednesday's release of the report by the Iraq Study Group, which is headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.). The panel is expected to recommend that Bush shift course in Iraq and begin withdrawing U.S. troops.