Premier orders pullback

U.S., Iraqi forces quit roadblocks around Sadr City

November 01, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered U.S. and Iraqi forces yesterday to remove roadblocks enclosing a vast Shiite Muslim neighborhood that is part of his power base and a suspected source of death squads.

Soon after, U.S. forces withdrew from checkpoints that have restricted movement in and around Sadr City since last week, when troops began searching for a missing U.S. soldier and hunted for a death squad leader there.

The order to lift the cordon appeared to be a further attempt by al-Maliki to assert his independence in dealing with Americans at a time when his differences with the Bush administration have grown sharp.

Al-Maliki said that such checkpoints would be set up only during night curfews or in emergencies. He added that his government would continue its battle against "terrorists and insurgents."

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he had not been briefed by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, about the withdrawal from checkpoints. But he defended al-Maliki's record on sectarian violence.

"He has been in office less than the baseball season; he is focused on it," Rumsfeld said. "Again, it is easier to say reconciliation than it is to achieve it. It takes time and it is difficult."

Rumsfeld confirmed that the Pentagon is likely to approve an increase in Iraqi security forces, though he would not specify the number.

Elsewhere, Iraqi authorities investigated reports that more than 30 people were kidnapped from three minibuses on a highway north of Baghdad. A car bomb outside a pre-wedding gathering in Baghdad killed at least 15 people, and another bomb attack killed three people at the edge of Sadr City.

At least 14 bodies were found around Baghdad, some bearing signs of torture, officials said.

Al-Maliki's order to take down the roadblocks in Sadr City and the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karada came after Shiite militants led by the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had called for a general strike and other actions in Sadr City to protest the checkpoints, where long lines had formed as U.S. troops stopped and searched cars. Al-Sadr's movement is part of al-Maliki's parliamentary coalition.

Last week, al-Maliki, a Shiite activist from a political party with close ties to Iran, criticized a raid in Sadr City as a sign of inadequate coordination between his government and U.S. military authorities, and told U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that he was "not America's man in Iraq."

That comment came after the Bush administration unsuccessfully pushed al-Maliki to agree to timelines for progress, amid growing impatience over al-Maliki's failure to crack down on Shiite militias and make other changes.

Some analysts saw yesterday's events as stagecraft aimed at shoring up al-Maliki by giving him the appearance of authority over U.S. tactics. Although troops took down some concrete barriers, other roadblocks remained at least partly in place.

"Do you really think that al-Maliki could put pressure on the Americans? This is a joke," said Hashim Hassan, a journalism professor at Baghdad University.

"It's all General Casey in the end," Hassan said. "The Iraqi government works under him."

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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