WASHINGTON – President Bush embarked Monday on what could be the most critical diplomatic mission of his presidency as he seeks support from NATO allies in quelling sectarian violence in Iraq, and prepares for a critical face-to-face session in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The president's trip to the NATO summit in Latvia also comes as members of the Iraq Study Group prepared to sit down to discuss their soon-to-be-released recommendations for changes in the administration's Iraq strategy.
Sectarian violence in Iraq is at its worst level since a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country and toppled Saddam Hussein nearly 3 1/2 years ago. Bush's meetings come in the wake of talks held over the weekend between Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the Saudi royal family.
A draft of the panel's report recommends aggressive regional diplomacy, including talks with Iran and Syria, the New York Times reported in Monday's editions.
Anonymous officials who had seen the draft report told the Times it does not specify any timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, although the commissioners are expected to debate the feasibility of such timetables.
Appearing Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," former President Jimmy Carter said that "at this point everybody is waiting" for the report. "My guess is that President Bush will take their advice as much as he possibly can," he added.
Carter said he would agree with any call for direct U.S. talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq, adding: "This is one of the most counterproductive policies that I've ever known, ... not to talk to the people who disagree with you unless they agree in advance to everything you demand."
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a potential presidential contender in 2008, said "it's not too late for the United States to extricate itself honorably from an impending disaster in Iraq."
"If the president fails to build a bipartisan foundation for an exit strategy, America will pay a high price for this blunder — one that we will have difficulty recovering from in the years ahead," Hagel wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.
As the U.S. involvement in Iraq surpassed the length of America's participation in World War II, lawmakers have dwindling confidence in the U.S.-supported Iraqi government.
The Bush-Maliki summit on Wednesday and Thursday, coupled with Cheney's trip to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, is evidence of the administration's stepped-up effort to bring stability to the region.
The host of the meeting, Jordan's King Abdullah, said Sunday the problems in the Middle East go beyond the war in Iraq. He said much of the region soon could become engulfed in violence unless the central issues are addressed quickly.
The king said he was hopeful the leaders will find a way to reduce the level of violence. "We hope there will be something dramatic. The challenges, obviously, in front of both of them are immense," he said.
Iraq's leaders promised Sunday to track down those responsible for the recent attacks, and al-Maliki urged his national unity government of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to curb the violence by stopping their public disputes.
The Iraqi prime minister is under pressure from Shiite politicians loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who have threatened to boycott parliament and the Cabinet if al-Maliki meets with Bush.
"This is all political posturing. It's all red herring. It's an anti-threat. This is a very stable government," responded Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie. He said he had no doubt the prime minister would meet with Bush in Jordan.
As for Bush, some of the toughest criticism is coming from within his own party.
"We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam," said Hagel, a combat veteran of that war. "Honorable intentions are not policies and plans."
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called Iraq the worst U.S. foreign policy decision since Vietnam. He said Democrats do not have a quick answer and any solution must be bipartisan.