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Bush asking Arab friends for help

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WASHINGTON — As President Bush and his top diplomats try to halt the downward spiral in Iraq and Lebanon, they seem intent on their strategy of talking only to Arab friends, despite increasing calls inside and outside the administration for them to reach out to Iran and Syria as well.

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 to exclude the Iranians and Syrians, despite the influence they wield in Iraq and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, one of Rice's most trusted aides, Philip D. Zelikow, announced Monday that he was resigning his post as State Department counselor. 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.

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.

When Bush and Rice arrive in Amman, Jordan, 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 Saturday, administration officials said, and Bush will repeat that entreaty with King Abdullah II of Jordan, as will 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, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada 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 al-Maliki, a Shiite. That would theoretically give al-Maliki the political strength necessary to take on al-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 the Sunni Arab nations to urge Iraqi Sunnis to back al-Maliki in hopes of peeling him away from al-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 Baqouba.

"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 Bush's meeting with al-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. Bush has largely shied away from that longstanding demand, but things may be changing.

Rice may add two stops — Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Jerusalem — to her itinerary this week, administration officials said. While a visit has not been finalized, Rice is considering meeting with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.

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.