U.S. top general in Iraq defends prime minister

Al-Maliki faces difficult times, officer says

September 30, 2006|By Doug Smith and Peter Spiegel | Doug Smith and Peter Spiegel,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Iraq disavowed yesterday criticism leveled by several senior officers at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for failing to rein in Shiite militias.

Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said in a sharply written statement that al-Maliki was doing a good job in bad circumstances. "These unattributed comments do not reflect the close partnership between the government of Iraq ... and Multi-National Force," he said.

The about-face came as violence continued to rack the city. The brother-in-law of the judge presiding over Saddam Hussein's trial was killed late Thursday, and authorities said yesterday that the bodies of 61 victims of execution and assassination had been found the previous day.

Impatience

During a briefing Wednesday, military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity voiced impatience with al-Maliki's Shiite-led government for being lax on the militias of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. They said that time is running out to rein in sectarian violence linked to Sadr's Al Mahdi army.

Every day, dozens of bodies, usually showing signs of torture, are discarded in the city.

Sadr followers, who hold 30 of the parliament's 275 seats, say they are legitimately defending Shiites against the largely Sunni insurgency, which plants bombs in parts of the city nearly every day.

The military officials said al-Maliki has stood in the way of plans to clear death squads from the sprawling Sadr City slum where the Al Mahdi army is based.

Since beefing up its Baghdad force with 4,000 troops, the U.S. military has conducted only light patrols in Sadr City, while clamping down on other, mostly Sunni, areas with sweeps and raids targeting nearly 100,000 buildings.

A Defense Department official who has discussed the comments about al-Maliki with U.S. officials in Baghdad said yesterday that there is no pressure from the Pentagon to back down. Instead, the official said, officers in Baghdad felt that media reports overstated the level of frustration with al-Maliki.

A senior Pentagon official directly involved in Iraq policy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Bush administration still supports al-Maliki but feels that the challenges he is facing are increasingly difficult.

`A really good guy'

"He is stronger than his predecessor, he is well positioned, he is a moderate Shiite, he is reaching out to the Sunnis, he is in the right place politically," the Pentagon official said. "We think he is a really good guy. But the security situation is daunting."

The official said the Pentagon is also watching closely how al-Maliki handles corruption in the Interior Ministry.

The ministry is widely believed to be under the control of officials loyal to a number of Shiite militia, even though the minister, Jawad Bolani, is thought to be independent of such groups.

At the earlier briefing, military officials said that al-Maliki had refused to authorize full-scale sweeps of Sadr City and that the effort to control the death squads has been hobbled by lists of Sadr followers who can't be arrested without prior approval by the government.

Officials in Washington also have expressed frustration with the Iraqi government's inability to control the militias.

But in the statement released yesterday, Casey praised al-Maliki as "a determined, courageous leader taking on some very difficult issues."

"He has an awful lot of challenges facing him, and I do believe he is very much up to the task," Casey said.

Doug Smith and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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