WASHINGTON – President Bush and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are facing a decision whether to keep their scheduled meeting next week in Jordan at the risk of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr making good on a threat to pull his Shiite faction from the fragile coalition government.
The White House sought to show strength in the face of the daunting situation, issuing a statement Friday denouncing recent acts of violence that included the burning Friday of Sunni mosques and worshippers, and car bombings that have killed more than 200 Iraqi civilians in the last two days.
"These ruthless acts of violence are deplorable," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "It is an outrage that terrorists are targeting innocents in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government and it's not going to work. Securing Baghdad and gaining control of the violence will be a priority agenda item when President Bush meets with Prime Minister al-Maliki in just a few days."
Earlier in the day, Stanzel said there had been no changes in the presiden't plans in light of threats from al-Sadr and that the meeting between Bush and Maliki would go on as scheduled.
The Pentagon's Baghdad spokesman, meanwhile, acknowledged Friday that operations were ongoing in Iraq's capital that included both ground and air forces to provide intelligence to Iraqi ground forces in the hope of quelling violence and preventing militia-on-militia attacks.
Maj. Shawn Stroud said Iraqi and multinational forces in Baghdad "are in the process of conducting operations and movement of troops in order to safeguard the lives of coalition forces and Iraqi citizens. Iraqi forces are in the lead. We won't discuss specific troop movements."
The U.S. official closely monitoring the situation in Iraq said the escalating violence — centered around the Sadr City area of Baghdad — is posing serious complications for the meeting.
Al-Sadr has threatened to withdraw his support for the al-Maliki government if al-Maliki attends the meeting with Bush set for Wednesday and Thursday in Amman, Jordan.
Thirty seats in the 275-member Iraq parliament are controlled by politicians aligned with al-Sadr. Yet to be determined, the official said, is how seriously al-Maliki — a Shiite himself — will take the threats from al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr's followers on Friday threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if Iraq's prime minister meets Bush next week, a lawmaker said.
The al-Sadr bloc in parliament and government is the backbone of al-Maliki's political support, and its withdrawal, if only temporarily, would be a severe blow to the prime minister's already shaky hold on power.
"If the security situation and services don't improve, and if Mr. prime minister does not cancel his meeting with Bush the criminal in Jordan, we will suspend our membership at the Council of Deputies (parliament) and government," Qusai Abdul-Wahab, an al-Sadr follower, said.
"We say occupation forces are fully responsible for these acts, and we call for the withdrawal of occupation forces or setting a timetable for their withdrawal," Abdul-Wahab said.
Next week's scheduled meeting would be the third meeting between the Bush and al-Maliki. The two are expected to meet Jordan directly following the NATO conference in Riga, Latvia, to discuss plans to improve security in Iraq as armed militias and sectarian violence continues to worsen there.
Al-Sadr's threat came on the heels of fresh violence in Iraq Friday, in which Shiite gunmen raided a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad and set fire to at least three Sunni mosques and reportedly pulled six Sunni worshippers from the buildings and set them on fire.
Iraq officials said at least 18 people died in the latest attack, which reportedly included rocket-propelled grenades and heavy automatic weapons.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros said Friday that al-Maliki's government remains steadfast despite the violence.
"The government of Iraq is intent on restoring order and maintaining security throughout Baghdad," Ballesteros said.
A number of groups are developing recommendations for an improved strategy in Iraq, and those will be watched carefully by both the administration and the incoming Congress. Some Democrats, who took control of both houses in the midterm elections, are looking for a plan that would start drawing down troop levels in Iraq in 2007.
There is a joint group of Iraqi and American officials, which Bush and al-Maliki will discuss next week. There are also high profile reviews by the Iraq Study Group — co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton — as well as a Pentagon-led review, both of which are expected in the coming weeks, but not before the Amman meeting.
Saudi Arabia is a key player in mideast and Arab politics, and the Bush administration is hoping it can flex some political and economic muscle in Iraq and Lebanon, which was the center of conflict earlier this year between Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli Army. Cheney has no other planned stops.
FOX News' James Rosen, Nick Simeone and Catherine Herridge and the Associated Press contributed to this report.