News item: The Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. allies in the Middle East are "near a state of panic" over "upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy -- and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse." George W. Bush had an awkward meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan. Dick Cheney got a "blunt warning" from Saudi leaders in Riyadh. And Condoleezza Rice "found little to work with" on her trip to Israel and the West Bank. "Visits designed to show the U.S. team was in charge ended, instead, in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts," the Times' Paul Richter writes. "The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region are struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship -- and to figure whether, with the new Democratic control of Congress, Bush even has control over his nation's Mideast policy."
News item: Bush will meet at the White House today with with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution. "The idea is to use the rivalry between Hakim and [Muqtada] 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," a senior administration official tells McClatchy Newspapers.
News item: "Senior White House officials ... say Mr. Bush has paid a political price for the war and now has a brief window of time before the 2008 election cycle intensifies to change conditions on the ground there. The officials say Mr. Rumsfeld's ouster was misinterpreted as a sign that a significant shift is coming."
News item: National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says Donald Rumsfeld's memo outlining options -- including withdrawal -- from Iraq was ''useful and constructive, but it was not a proposal for a new course of action.''
News item: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that the current situation in Iraq is "much worse than" a civil war -- and that average Iraqis might reasonably believe that their lives are worse now than they were under Saddam Hussein. "If I were an average Iraqi obviously I would make the same comparison, that they had a dictator who was brutal but they had their streets, they could go out, their kids could go to school and come back home without a mother or father worrying, 'Am I going to see my child again?'" Annan tells the BBC. "And the Iraqi government has not been able to bring the violence under control. The society needs security and a secure environment for it to get on -- without security not much can be done -- not recovery or reconstruction."
News item: The St. Paul Travelers Co., the largest commercial underwriter in Louisiana, said Friday that it won't renew insurance policies for many small and midsize businesses in New Orleans next year. Although the company said it was simply reducing its exposure in some "hurricane-prone areas," the state's insurance commissioner says the move appears to be based on "the state of the rebuilding of our levee system." If other insurers follow suit? Mark Drennen, who runs the Greater New Orleans Inc. economic development group, tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune that that would be a "catastrophic situation" that would "totally thwart any kind of economy recovery down here."