US President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are to hold crisis talks today as both struggle to put their war strategy back on course after suffering sharp political setbacks.
At this week's summit in Amman, Jordan, the embattled leaders will seek new ways to halt Iraq's seemingly inexorable slide into sectarian bloodshed and revive the flagging partnership between their countries.
The meeting comes as both are under mounting pressure to change course.
This month, US voters lambasted Bush's Iraq strategy at the polls and the lame duck Republican leader will now finish the last two years of his term in office under the scrutiny of a skeptical Democratic Congress.
Meanwhile, Maliki's fragile coalition government faces threats of boycott from both Sunni and Shiite factions, which separately blame him and his US allies for the raging sectarian violence tearing their country apart.
After months of insisting that their strategy was working, both leaders have been criticized for failing to recognize the nature of the crisis, and both now admit that new thinking is required.
"We're clearly in a new phase, characterized by this increasing sectarian violence. That requires us, obviously, to adapt to that new phase," US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said on Monday as Bush left Washington.
Last week -- after months of blaming foreign agents and extremist factions for stirring the bloodshed -- Maliki shifted his gaze to the bitterly divided parties within his own so-called government of national unity.
"Terrorist actions are a reflection of the political situation," Maliki said. "It is deteriorating because of politicians. Those who can stop the bloodshed are worsening it."
Iraq is in the grip of violence between rebel groups and illegal militias tied to rival Sunni and Shiite factions, many of them represented in Maliki's Cabinet, and the civilian death toll is mounting daily.
The UN has estimated last month's civilian death toll at a record 3,700.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on Monday Iraq was "almost" at civil war.
Until recently the White House would have responded that its 150,000 troops in Iraq were pursuing a successful policy of shoring up Maliki's elected regime while training Iraqi government forces to fight the insurgency.
This process was said to need 12 to 18 months to bear fruit and allow US troop withdrawals to begin. But many, including influential members of the new US Congress, fear the strategy is not working.
US commentators are urging Bush to be firm with Maliki and insist he work harder to rein in the different factions in his own warring government.
Maliki is likely to bridle at any such pressure.
At home, he is accused of being too close to the US. Lawmakers close to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have threatened to pull out of the coalition if this week's meeting with Bush goes ahead.
Sunni leaders, meanwhile, have accused US and Iraqi forces of standing by while Shiite death squads murder members of the minority sect.