Maliki Faults Iraqi Officer's Detention of U.S. Troops After Shootout

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

An Iraqi officer who ordered the detention of U.S. soldiers last week after they killed three Iraqis while pursuing insurgents acted in error and was "out of line," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday.

The officer "did not understand the agreement" governing U.S. military activities since American combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities last month, Maliki said in an interview, adding that it "clearly states that American forces have the right to defend themselves, and that's what they did." Four Iraqis, including two children, also were wounded when U.S. forces returned fire and raided nearby houses after insurgents attacked their convoy.

Maliki, at the end of a week-long U.S. visit, said he had telephoned Baghdad and "made clear that they understand that this demand of handing over the people who killed the Iraqis was wrong."

The incident, which occurred Tuesday in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, marked a potential escalation of tensions between both countries' military forces as they struggle with differing interpretations of the six-month-old military agreement. The accord, which went into effect Jan. 1, turns over all security responsibility to the Iraqi forces, and it provides for a phased U.S. withdrawal, including last month's pullout from urban areas and the complete departure of American forces by the end of 2011.

Both governments have tried to play down talk of friction between them, and senior commanders have said they are working on clearer guidelines. On the ground, however, the Americans have chafed at the restrictions and said their security is at risk.

During his four days in Washington, Maliki has consistently described U.S.-Iraq relations as being at a positive turning point, with insurgent violence substantially reduced and bilateral attention shifting from security matters to more "normal" economic, diplomatic and cultural issues. Maliki, who met with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, senior lawmakers and business representatives, dismissed reports that Iraq is feeling slighted by the Obama administration's shift in attention to the war in Afghanistan.

"It is true that we had more frequent and continual relationships with the Bush administration," he said, including weekly video and telephone conversations with President George W. Bush. "But that was because of the circumstances of that period. It was not an indication that it was stronger then and weaker now."

Maliki said he was pleased with talks with U.S. officials and especially gratified by a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that he said would lead to a major international Iraq investment conference in October. He also signed an agreement for up to 10,000 Iraqi students to study abroad annually -- including in the United States -- over the next five years and a deal under which Ohio will offer Iraqi students in-state tuition and benefits.

The Obama administration, concerned that ongoing sectarian strife will endanger political and economic progress in Iraq as U.S. troops draw down, has used Maliki's visit to press for quicker and greater progress on reconciliation among the Shiite majority, Sunnis and Kurds. During his White House meeting with Maliki on Wednesday, Obama told reporters, "I reiterated my belief that Iraq will be more secure and more successful if there is a place for all Iraqi citizens to thrive, including all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups. That's why America continues to support efforts to integrate all Iraqis into Iraq's government and security forces."

Leaders in the autonomous Kurdish region said last week that armed conflict between local militia troops and Iraqi army forces has been avoided only by the presence of the U.S. military. Issues of contention include control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk and delineation of the territorial boundary between Kurdish and Arab Iraq.

Maliki's power, and his prospects for returning to office after January elections, are seen as greatly enhanced by overall security improvements. The Kurdish problem, and any escalation in sporadic attacks by Shiite and Sunni insurgents elsewhere in Iraq, could undermine his standing. At the same time, however, he must take care not to alienate his principal Shiite constituency.

At every venue during his U.S. visit, Maliki has insisted that no one wants reconciliation more than he does. "We are determined not to go back to sectarianism," he said in the interview, adding that it was the "root of all problems" in Iraq.

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