By Dalya Hassan and Aziz Alwan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 26, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 25 -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki canceled an official trip to Iran, officials said Thursday, drawing surprise from colleagues in his government.
Maliki's office said the trip was postponed after officials in the two neighboring countries failed to agree on specific dates. His office had previously said the trip would follow a visit to Turkey that ended Wednesday.
The cancellation prompted speculation among Iraqi officials that Maliki changed his plans for a possible visit to Baghdad by President-elect Barack Obama, or because of the tumult in parliament that followed the resignation this week of its abrasive and sometimes strident speaker. Others suggested that Maliki was simply required to be in Baghdad ahead of the implementation of a new agreement that, starting Jan. 1, regulates the once almost unquestioned authority of the U.S. military here.
"We don't know what is going on and why the prime minister canceled his visit to Iran," said Bassem Sharif, a parliament member with the Shiite-led Fadhila Party. "The whole issue is not why the visit had been canceled. We don't know even why he wanted to go to Iran."
Relations with Iran remain among Iraq's most contentious issues and are sure to gather importance ahead of provincial elections next month that could reorient power in the country. Iran wields decisive influence here, and its critics castigated Maliki after his last visit in June. During that trip, he removed his necktie during a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, in deference to Iranian custom.
Iraq approaches the provincial elections as a far less violent country than it was during a nationwide ballot in 2005. Roadblocks and barricades effectively partition the capital into hamlets, snarling traffic but restoring a semblance of normality. That was reinforced Thursday when the government declared Christmas a national holiday for the first time, a bittersweet reprieve for the country's beleaguered and rapidly dwindling Christian minority.
But violence still punctuated the day in Baghdad. In the worst episode, a homemade bomb exploded in the Shuala neighborhood, killing five people. Bombs also went off in Alam, killing a child, and clashes in another neighborhood, Khadhra, left two assailants dead, said Col. Salman Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Other attacks -- from shootings to bombings -- were reported Thursday in Thuluyah, Muqdadiyah, Basra and Mosul, where the military said a rocket or mortar attack killed a U.S. soldier.
The paradox of suffocating security and persistent violence left some suspicious.
"It doesn't make sense that with all the security in the city, with checkpoints everywhere, how this bomb could still make it through," said Naser al-Saidi, a loyalist of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.