Tensions growing between Iraq, U.S.

Prime minister's OK of timelines belies his criticism of pressure

October 28, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi prime minister sharply criticized U.S. policy yesterday during a private meeting with the U.S. ambassador, pointing to America's failure to either reduce violence or give his government authority over security matters.

The criticism in private was the latest example of tension between the two governments and stood in stark contrast to a joint public statement issued after the meeting.

In the statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the U.S. Embassy said they had agreed to unspecified "timelines" to make tough political and security decisions on the country's future.

Privately, however, al-Maliki criticized what he called the patronizing U.S. tone toward the Iraqi government and warned U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to respect Iraq's sovereignty, according to two of the prime minister's advisers.

"I'm a friend to the United States, but not America's man in Iraq," al-Maliki told Khalilzad, according to Hassan Sinod, one of the prime minister's closest advisers.

Previously, al-Maliki had vehemently rejected the notion of deadlines for his government to achieve key goals, but the statement said that "the Iraqi government has made clear the issues that must be resolved with timelines for them to take positive steps forward on behalf of the Iraqi people."

The statement said that "Iraq and the United States are committed to working together to respond to the needs of the people." It affirmed that America "will continue to stand by the Iraqi government" amid rumors that Washington may be seeking alternatives to Baghdad's current Shiite-led administration.

Al-Maliki's supporters played down the reference to timelines as insignificant, saying they were meant as rough guidelines to hand security over to Iraqis.

U.S. officials in Baghdad could not be reached for comment.

Following days of back-and-forth recriminations, the contrast between private criticism and the public statement brought into sharper focus a dispute that may have already undermined the Shiite-led government and increased friction between America and the country's majority sect.

Khalilzad is at odds with al-Maliki on how to address the Shiite militias wreaking havoc on large parts of the country. Last year, Khalilzad persuaded Sunni Arabs now victimized by the militias to enter the government. The ambassador has insisted that the Shiite armed groups and Sunni Arab insurgents be treated similarly.

Al-Maliki draws political support from the groups backing militias. He says they should be drawn into the political process and disarmed peacefully. U.S. military and political officials have grown frustrated over perceived Iraqi government inaction on militias, now deemed by Americans as the No. 1 impetus of sectarian violence.

Khalilzad told reporters Tuesday that Iraqis must "achieve key political and security milestones" by certain deadlines, or face unspecified consequences. But he was rebuffed by both al-Maliki and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who told critics to "back off" making unreasonable demands of the five-month-old Iraqi government.

Al-Maliki's inner circle, huddled in a late-night briefing, said the prime minister would call President Bush today to clear the air about what the government views as unproductive interference on the part of U.S. officials in Baghdad.

"Khalilzad's demand for a timetable was clear interference with the sovereignty of the Iraqi government," said Nada Sudani, a member of parliament who belongs to al-Maliki's Dawa Party. "Maliki rejects any exterior body giving a timeline for the performance of the Iraqi government."

Prickly truths underlie the squabbling and confusion: Al-Maliki's government has lost public backers over five months of car bombs, death squad slayings and economic misery, and increasingly relies for support on narrow cliques of Islamist political parties, including the radical movement of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The U.S. government, undertaking a huge nation-building project while fighting off a ferocious insurgency, has little choice but to back al-Maliki's Iranian-influenced Shiite government. Any U.S. move against al-Maliki could spark even greater violence and anti-American animosity.

Al-Maliki has demanded that Americans let him try to politically co-opt al-Sadr, who has gone from a rabble-rousing street firebrand in the early days after the U.S. invasion to one of the most powerful figures in the country, with 30 seats in parliament and control over several key ministries.

Among his followers' alleged misdeeds was the Monday night abduction of a U.S. soldier of Iraqi descent. The Iraqi family of the missing army translator issued a public appeal for his release as U.S. soldiers continued a days-long crackdown on the volatile Sadr City areawhere they suspect he's being held, according to Iraq's Sharqiya television.

Witnesses said U.S. forces raided schools, mosques and homes over the last few days in search of the missing soldier.

Sharqiya television said the missing soldier's name is Ahmad Qusai Tai. He was taken from a home in central Baghdad Monday night after he left the Green Zone to spend the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday with relatives.

Tai's mother, according to a Sharqiya interview, has pleaded publicly for his captors to treat him with mercy and return him to his family.

Sadr City is a stronghold of bands of Sadr's self-described followers, who call themselves the Mahdi army. Sadr launched the organization as a tool to mobilize and organize poor, young, pious Shiites.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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