Bush, prime minister talk

A `freer hand' to fight requested by Iraqi leader

October 29, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's prime minister pressed President Bush yesterday to give his government a freer hand to fight Sunni Arab insurgents and neutralize the Shiite militias knocking the country off balance, in a conversation meant to smooth tensions that have flared over security disagreements and election-year rhetoric.

Bush, in the 50-minute video teleconference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upheld Washington's loyalty to his Shiite-dominated government despite its failure to rein in the militias, which form a nucleus of al-Maliki's political base.

Al-Maliki and U.S. officials have pressured radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to crack down on a powerful and volatile militia nominally under his control. Yesterday, several members of his organization said that al-Sadr has designated a committee of loyalists to investigate and purge his organization of the most egregious troublemakers.

The committee has expelled and publicly denounced 30 self-styled al-Sadr movement members, said Qusai Abdul-Wahab, a member of parliament loyal to al-Sadr.

Yesterday's conversation between Bush and al-Maliki followed a week of recriminations between U.S. officials in Baghdad and the Iraqi government over the disbanding and disarming of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and other paramilitary groups allegedly responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of thousands of Sunni Arab men.

At least 20 such men, some bearing electrical drill and hot iron wounds on their torsos and gunshot wounds to the head, were discovered yesterday in and around Baghdad.

At a private meeting Friday, al-Maliki had demanded that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad respect his nation's sovereignty in the face of mounting U.S. demands for his government to take controversial security steps against al-Sadr.

Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have referred to timelines that the Iraqi government must abide by.

But there was no mention of timelines or deadlines in a joint statement issued yesterday after Bush and al-Maliki spoke, just an unspecific commitment to "accelerating the pace of training the Iraqi security force, and transferring responsibility for security" to Iraqis.

"As leaders of two great countries, we are committed to the security and prosperity of a democratic Iraq and the global fight against terrorism which affects all our citizens," the statement said.

"There are no strains in the relationship," White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday.

He added that al-Maliki is "not America's man in Iraq. The United States is there in a role to assist him. He's the prime minister - he's the leader of the Iraqi people. He is, in fact, the sovereign leader of Iraq."

Al-Maliki asked Bush to give him the power to consolidate authority over security forces. The hodgepodge security arrangement in the capital, he told Bush, was enabling insurgents to flee from one area to another after staging terrorist operations, said Haidar al-Abadi, a confidant of al-Maliki and member of his party's parliamentary bloc.

Al-Maliki asked Bush to let his security forces enter areas controlled by the Americans, al-Abadi said.

"He asked the president to allow the Iraqi government to have a stronger and freer hand in managing the security situation in Iraq," he said. "We don't have control over the movement of security forces."

Sharp disagreements over the handling of the Shiite militias have frayed relations between al-Maliki's government and U.S. officials in Baghdad.

Khalilzad demands that the Iraqi government take the same zero-tolerance stance toward Shiite militias that it takes toward Sunni Arab insurgents. But al-Maliki told Bush that he has a different formula for disarming the militias, al-Abadi said.

There are signs that al-Maliki's approach is producing some initial results. Shortly after he visited al-Sadr in his Najaf home to discuss security issues, the cleric created the purging committee, with the power to investigate those who purport to act in the name of his organization and boot out those involved in criminal activity.

Al-Maliki told Bush that the militias will disappear once the Sunnis' campaign of bombing and shooting civilians and officials and Shiite holy sites subsides.

But there were few signs yesterday that such a prospect was on the horizon.

At least one U.S. service member was reported killed in Iraq, bringing to 98 the number of troops killed in Iraq this month. The Marine, assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, died Friday of combat injuries sustained in western Anbar province, the military said.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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