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Iraq Transition

Iraqi Shiite with Iran ties to visit Bush

Story Highlights

NEW: Administration official says Bush will meet in January with Iraq VP, a Sunni
• White House confirms Bush will see an Iraqi Shiite leader with Iranian ties
• Iraqi official's aide says the two leaders will discuss Iraqi politics
• Visit comes amid spiralling violence between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a top Iraqi Shiite leader with close ties to Iran, will meet with President Bush next week, the White House confirmed Friday.

Al-Hakim leads the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, a rival group to the political movement led by firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the meeting was set for Monday.

"President Bush looks forward to an exchange of views and a discussion of important issues facing Iraq today," Johndroe said.

Also, a senior administration official said Bush will meet with a Sunni leader -- Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi -- in January at the White House.

The visits come against a backdrop of deadly Sunni-Shiite sectarian warfare in Iraq that has led some observers to say a civil war has engulfed the country.

Bush returned from a summit Thursday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Jordan focusing on the deteriorating security situation.

Al-Hakim and Bush will discuss the political crisis in Iraq, said al-Hakim's aide, Haitham Husseini.

But Husseini declined to discuss whether the Washington visit would mark the beginning of a dialogue between the United States and Iran. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq also has closes ties with neighboring Iran.

There are "big issues to be discussed" and "Iraqis welcome any effort from neighboring countries to be part of the effort to bring peace to Iraq," Husseini said.

In the past, Bush has accused Iran of providing material support to Iraq's insurgency. The administration has resisted calls for diplomacy with the Iranians.

Exile in Iran

In 1982, during Saddam Hussein's regime and its war with Iran, the SCIRI was founded in Iran as a guerilla movement, said the Council on Foreign Relations. The group's militia, the Badr Brigades, staged armed attacks against Hussein's regime, according to the council's Web site.

"Al-Hakim's beliefs align with Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's, in that he supports a secular democracy that recognizes the importance of Islam but bars clerics from overtly exercising political power," the council says on its Web site, noting that al-Hakim lived in exile in Iran for more than 20 years before returning to Iraq.

Husseini said the White House invitation came months ago in a Bush phone call to al-Hakim, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica mentioned it again during her last trip to Iraq.

Bush called al-Hakim in February to express his condolences and support following the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Outrage about the attack sparked increased sectarian violence in Iraq.

Al-Hakim's and al-Sadr's movements, along with al-Maliki's Dawa Party, are part of the United Iraqi Alliance, Iraq's Shiite-led ruling party.

Al-Sadr's supporters struck a blow to the Iraqi prime minister's political standing this week when they announced they were suspending participation in the government because of al-Maliki's Jordan summit with Bush, a meeting they vehemently opposed. (Full story)

The group -- which has 30 parliament members and six Cabinet ministers -- set demands for the ending of its government boycott, in particular a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

Along with this boycott, the al-Sadr people announced intentions to form a cross-sectarian alliance with others -- Sunnis, Christians, Kurds and Turkmens.

Such a shift in political allegiance could create big political changes in Iraq.

The prime minister got his job earlier this year in part with the support of the United States and al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia is thought to be behind much of the sectarian attacks.

Al-Sadr's group and the SCIRI differ on the key issue of federalism. The latter favors a Shiite autonomous region in the south, while al-Sadr's people oppose this position, taking the same stance as Sunnis.

Al-Maliki said Thursday he believed Iraqi forces would be ready by June to take full control of security in Iraq, an issue on which he pressed Bush during their Jordan meeting. (Full story)

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.


Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim prays in Baghdad at an October event marking the end of Ramadan.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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