Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are traveling to Jordan this week for talks that are to include Iraq’s prime minister and a number of Sunni Arab leaders but exclude the Iranians and Syrians, despite the influence they wield in Iraq and Lebanon.
Meanwhile, one of Ms. Rice’s most trusted aides, Philip D. Zelikow, announced Monday that he was resigning his post as State Department counselor. Mr. Zelikow, widely viewed as a voice of candor in the administration on the Iraq crisis, said in his resignation letter that he would return to teaching at the University of Virginia. He cited a “truly riveting obligation to college bursars” for his children’s tuition.
An administration official said Mr. Zelikow had been frustrated with administration policy on the Middle East, including Iraq, and North Korea.
There have been signs of strain within the administration, particularly at the State Department, where career Foreign Service officials have argued for increased dialogue with Iran and Syria to try to stem the violence in Iraq and Lebanon. “We’ve got a mess on our hands,” said a senior State Department official, who, like others discussing the subject, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject publicly.
When Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice arrive in Amman on Wednesday, they will try to enlist help from Sunni Arab leaders to try to rein in the violence in Iraq by putting pressure on Sunni insurgents. That was part of Vice President Dick Cheney’s message to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during a brief visit on Saturday, administration officials said, and Mr. Bush will repeat that entreaty with King Abdullah II of Jordan, as will Ms. Rice when she meets for talks with Persian Gulf foreign ministers at the Dead Sea on Thursday and Friday.
Specifically, the United States wants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to work to drive a wedge between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has been behind many of the Shiite reprisal attacks in Iraq, a senior administration official said. That would require getting the predominantly Sunni Arab nations to work to get moderate Sunni Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki, a Shiite. That would theoretically give Mr. Maliki the political strength necessary to take on Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militias.
“There’s been some discussion about whether you just try to deal first with the Sunni insurgency, but that would mean being seen to be taking just one side of the fight, which would not be acceptable,” the administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic practice.
But getting Sunni Arab nations to urge Iraqi Sunnis to back Mr. Maliki in the hopes of peeling him away from Mr. Sadr is a tall order under any circumstances, and it was made even taller last week after the killing of more than 200 people by bombings in a Shiite district of Baghdad, the deadliest single attack since the American invasion. The attacks led to violent reprisals; vengeful Shiite militiamen attacked Sunni mosques in Baghdad and Baquba.
“We’re clearly in a new phase, characterized by this increasing sectarian violence,” Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Estonia for a NATO summit meeting before Mr. Bush’s meeting with Mr. Maliki. “That requires us, obviously, to adapt to that new phase, and these two leaders need to be talking about how to do that and what steps Iraq needs to take and how we can support them.”
In return for helping on Iraq, the Sunni Arab countries have asked the Bush administration for a new push toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Mr. Bush has largely shied away from that longstanding demand, but things may be changing.
Ms. Rice may add two stops — Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Jerusalem — to her itinerary this week, administration officials said. While her schedule has not been made final, Ms. Rice is considering meeting with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.
Ms. Rice has argued in favor of stepping up work on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and several times this fall she has seemed to be on the verge of a major peace initiative, only to be overtaken by other crises.
A new cease-fire began Monday after Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to end five months of fighting in Gaza. The truce got off to a shaky start when Palestinian militants associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired nine rockets into southern Israel, but American, Arab and European diplomats said this may be the most important chance in some time to end the fighting.
Mr. Olmert, in a speech on Monday, even suggested that the cease-fire could revive peace efforts. A visit by Ms. Rice to the region could further prod those efforts, American officials said.
“We have seldom seen the U.S. administration so focused on all of the constituent parts of putting the Middle East together as they are at this point,” a European diplomat said. “They seem to suddenly have got that this isn’t just about Iraq. It’s about a number of parts of the Rubik’s Cube that they have to put together again.”
Beyond Israel, another part of the puzzle is whether America will directly engage Iran and Syria, something the administration remains loath to do, despite indications that a bipartisan study group will recommend a regional diplomatic initiative to include both countries. The pressure to begin talks is rising, with former administration officials joining the call.
“The Syrians are saying, ‘We can negatively affect the situation in Lebanon and hurt your friends, we can negatively affect Iraq, but that’s all right, don’t talk to us,’ ” said Theodore H. Kattouf, President Bush’s former ambassador to Syria. “With diplomacy generally, if you’re not prepared to achieve your aims through warfare, then you have to engage in some horse-trading. Unfortunately, there isn’t much give-and-take between the U.S. and Syria right now.”