WASHINGTON – President Bush will hold an Oval Office meeting with a key Iraqi Shiite leader today amid a scramble to bolster the strife-torn nation’s unity government before it collapses in civil war.

The meeting with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, is considered an effort to boost support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with whom Bush met in Jordan last Thursday. Al-Hakim is a leading opponent of anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the most powerful bloc in Iraq’s ruling coalition.

The administration hopes that by urging Hakim and other al-Sadr rivals to support Maliki more forcefully, they can reign in the growing radical influence of al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, two senior administration officials said.

Bush’s meeting with Hakim, two days before a bipartisan Iraq Study Group issues its recommendations for a new U.S. approach to Iraq, comes in the wake of news leaks reflecting a far more pessimistic outlook about the war among Bush’s top advisers than the administration has expressed publicly. In the latest leaked memo, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote two days before his Nov. 8 resignation that the U.S. strategy was “not working well enough or fast enough” and that “a major adjustment” was needed, the New York Times and Washington Post reported.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley dismissed Rumsfeld’s memo as “a laundry list of ideas” that was submitted in response to Bush’s request to a number of agencies for new approaches.

Hadley said the president is reviewing his Iraq policy and that the study group’s report will be “an important input,” but that Bush also wants to hear from Congress, his military commanders and Iraqi leaders before making any policy decisions.

‘Not failed’

While conceding administration mistakes in Iraq, Hadley insisted that the United States has “not failed” in the war. He warned that a pullout of U.S. troops would create “a safe haven” for al-Qaida.

The two senior officials, who insisted upon anonymity because their remarks were not cleared by the White House, said the administration has seized on the central proposal in a leaked, Nov. 8 Hadley memo to Bush that urged an end to Maliki’s reliance on al-Sadr.

“The idea is to use the rivalry between Hakim and al-Sadr to encourage Hakim and Badr (the Badr Organization militia of Hakim’s Supreme Council) to support the government more energetically and to stand up to Sadr’s push for control of Baghdad,” one of the officials said.

While both the Supreme Council and Sadr’s organization are strongly backed by Iran’s Shiite regime, al-Sadr is considered to be more anti-American, reluctant to compromise and more unpredictable. “They both have issues, but Hakim is more of a grown-up,” said the second official.

The officials said that the administration’s effort to strengthen Maliki and prod him to resist the Sadrists also would include contacts with other Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders whom it considers moderates. They will be offered unspecified “consideration” for their support, the officials said.

Some within the administration regard the Iraqi prime minister as a lost cause, one official said, because as Hadley’s memo suggested, Maliki appears either unwilling or unable to combat the rising power of the Shiite militias, especially al-Sadr’s. Some officials at the CIA, State Department and Defense Department worry that it already may be too late to head off Sadr’s offensive in Baghdad and against Maliki, the officials said.

But both of the senior officials said the administration has concluded that it has no choice but to try to strengthen Maliki, whose election it hailed as a victory for Iraqi democracy. On NBC, Hadley said that representatives of the Sunnis, who are fighting the Shias, “absolutely” would remain a full partner in the unity government.

Sheikh Jalal al-Sagheer, an Iraqi legislator, senior cleric at the Bratha Mosque and close ally of Hakim’s, said that his U.S. visit has been in the making for a year and contended it “has no relation with the latest events in Iraq.”

Bush also is expected to meet with vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, who is a Sunni, in the coming month, he said.

(A special correspondent in Iraq, whose identity is being withheld for security reasons, also contributed to this report.)

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-03-06 2134EST

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