By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 26, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 25 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out at the United States on Wednesday, saying his popularly elected government would not bend to U.S.-imposed benchmarks and timelines and criticizing a U.S.-Iraqi military operation in a Shiite slum in Baghdad that left at least five people dead and 20 wounded.
Maliki's comments came a day after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the prime minister had agreed to timelines for accomplishing several critical goals, including developing plans to deal with militias, amend the constitution and equitably distribute Iraq's oil revenue.
"I affirm that this government represents the will of the people, and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it," Maliki said at a nationally televised news conference Wednesday. "The Americans have the right to review their policies, but we do not believe in a timetable."
With less than two weeks to go before critical midterm elections in the United States, Maliki accused U.S. officials of election-year grandstanding, saying that deadlines were not logical and were "the result of elections taking place right now that do not involve us."
In a conference call with reporters, two senior Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee focused on Maliki's statements on the Bush administration benchmarks.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the panel, said, "I think the page we are on differs and is rewritten day to day to try to get past the elections here."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a West Point graduate who just returned from Iraq, said Maliki's comment "deliberately repudiates what the president's saying." He called it "disheartening" but said it "might be a function of politics of Iraq as much as a function of politics of the United States. But it does not appear they're even at the level of how to talk about the problem."
Maliki's comments followed a deadly early-morning military raid in Sadr City, a teeming Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad with more than 2 million residents loyal to the charismatic anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The aim of the operation was to capture the leader of a Shiite death squad, according to a U.S. military statement. It was unclear whether the target was among the casualties.
Sadr heads a large Shiite political party that is a key member of Maliki's government. He also heads a powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, that has fought several prolonged battles against American troops. U.S. officials, Sunni Arabs and independent observers say that the Mahdi Army is a driving force behind death squads that have slaughtered thousands of Sunnis and that Maliki's government has done little to halt the attacks or disarm the group.
Although a U.S. military statement on the operation did not mention the Mahdi Army or Sadr by name, the implication that the target was a member of the militia was unmistakable.
Iraqi army special forces, supported by U.S. advisers, "conducted a raid authorized by the Government of Iraq . . . to capture a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death-squad activity throughout eastern Baghdad," the statement said. It also said Iraqi forces came under fire during the raid and "requested support from Coalition aircraft, which used precision gunfire only to eliminate the enemy threat."
At his news conference, Maliki distanced himself from the raid, saying his government would "ask for clarification about what has happened in Sadr City" and "review the issue with the multinational forces so that it will not be repeated."
Sahib al-Amiry, a top aide to Sadr, denied that any of the casualties were members of a death squad, saying they were simple people trying to scratch out a living. Speaking in Najaf, where Sadr has his headquarters, Amiry accused the United States of trying to provoke a bigger clash with Sadr's forces, but he said the cleric had ordered his followers not to rise to the bait.
Sadr "gave an order to calm down and be patient, because the occupation forces want to drag the Mahdi Army into an internal fight, especially in Baghdad," Amiry said. He said Sadr "is calling for calm, but the occupation forces are insisting on escalating the situation."
Meanwhile, the office of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. military official in Iraq, issued a statement Wednesday clarifying that he has not asked for more U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq. The statement said reports of Casey's comments at the joint news conference with Khalilzad on Tuesday "inferred" that Casey said more troops might be needed to quell violence in Iraq. "Quite frankly, that is the wrong impression," the statement said.
"There is no intent to bring more U.S. troops into Iraq at this time," the statement said. "The General was merely saying, as he has said consistently since taking command of the Multi-National Force Iraq, that all options are on the table. He will ask for what is needed. He has made no such request to date."
In his remarks Tuesday, Casey said he did not want to go into specifics about how better security and services would be brought to Baghdad, adding: "Now, do we need more troops to do that? Maybe. And as I've said all along, if we do, I will ask for the troops I need, both coalition and Iraqis."
Casey elaborated later, saying that if he needed more troops, he could draw them from Iraqi forces, U.S. forces already in Iraq or U.S. forces outside the theater.
Despite Maliki's tough reaction to suggestions that his government would bow to benchmarks and timelines to rein in militias, the prime minister reiterated at his news conference Wednesday, for the second time in as many days, the government's intention to crack down on illegal armed groups.
"The state is the only one that has the right to carry weapons," he said. "We will deal with anybody who is outside the law. Everyone now realizes that the existence of armed groups and militias harms the stability and unity of the state."
He also appealed to Iraq's neighbors to stop meddling in his country's affairs, and he blamed foreign fighters and supporters of ousted president Saddam Hussein for fomenting the current violence.
"I would like to state here that the root of the battle we are fighting in Iraq and the root of the bloody cycle that we are undergoing is the presence of terror organizations that have arrived in the country," Maliki said.
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf and staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.