'Not America's man in Iraq,' Premier says

Aides say Maliki warns U.S. to respect nation's sovereignty.

By Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times

October 28, 2006

Iraq's prime minister sharply criticized U.S. policy Friday during a private meeting with the American ambassador, pointing to the United States' failure to either reduce violence or give his government authority over security matters, aides to the Iraqi leader said.

The criticism was the latest example of tension between the two governments and stood in contrast to a joint public statement issued after the meeting.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and the U.S. Embassy said in the statement that they had agreed to unspecified timelines to make tough political and security decisions on the country's future.

Privately, however, Maliki criticized what he called the patronizing U.S. tone toward the Iraqi government and warned U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to respect Iraq's sovereignty, two of the prime minister's advisors said.

"I'm a friend to the United States, but not America's man in Iraq," Maliki told Khalilzad, according to Hassan Senaid, one of the prime minister's closest advisors.

Previously, Maliki had vehemently rejected the notion of deadlines for his government to achieve key goals, but the statement said that "the Iraqi government has made clear the issues that must be resolved with timelines for them to take positive steps forward on behalf of the Iraqi people."

The statement also said that "Iraq and the United States are committed to working together to respond to the needs of the people." It affirmed that the United States would "continue to stand by the Iraqi government" amid rumors that Washington might be seeking alternatives to Baghdad's Shiite-led administration.

Maliki's supporters downplayed the reference to timelines as insignificant, saying they were meant as rough guidelines to hand security over to the Iraqis.

U.S. officials in Baghdad could not be reached for comment.

After days of back-and-forth recriminations, the contrast between private criticism and the public statement brought into sharper focus a dispute that might have already undermined the Maliki government and increased friction between the United States and Iraq's majority Shiites.

Khalilzad is at odds with Maliki on how to address the Shiite Muslim militias wreaking havoc on large parts of Iraq. The ambassador last year persuaded Sunni Arabs, now victimized by the militias, to enter the government. He has insisted armed Shiite groups and Sunni Arab insurgents be treated similarly.

Maliki draws political support from the groups backing the militias. He said they should be drawn into the political process and disarmed peacefully.

U.S. military and political officials have grown frustrated over what they see as Iraqi government inaction on the militias, now deemed by Americans as the No. 1 impetus of sectarian violence.

Khalilzad told reporters Tuesday that Iraqis must "achieve key political and security milestones" by certain deadlines or face unspecified consequences. But he was rebuffed by Maliki and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who told critics to "back off" making unreasonable demands on the 5-month-old Iraqi government.

Maliki's inner circle, huddled in a late-night briefing, said the prime minister would call President Bush today to clear the air about what his government viewed as unproductive interference on the part of U.S. officials in Baghdad.

"Khalilzad's demand for a timetable was clear interference with the sovereignty of the Iraqi government," said Nada Sudani, a member of parliament from Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. "Maliki rejects any exterior body giving a timeline for the performance of the Iraqi government."

Prickly truths underlie the squabbling and confusion: Maliki's government has lost public support over five months of car bombs, death squads and economic misery, and increasingly relies on narrow cliques of Islamist political parties, including the radical movement of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr.

The U.S. government, undertaking a massive nation-building project while fighting off a ferocious insurgency, has little choice but to back Maliki's Iranian-influenced Shiite government. Any U.S. move against Maliki could spark greater violence and anti-American animosity.

Maliki has demanded that Americans let him try to politically co-opt Sadr, who has gone from a rabble-rousing street firebrand in the early days after the U.S.-led invasion to one of the most powerful figures in the country who controls 30 seats in parliament and several key ministries.

There have been numerous signs that Sadr has tired of the most troublesome of his loyalists. During prayers Friday in the southern city of Kufa, Sadr's principal pulpit, his deputy denounced recent violence in Iraq caused by "people who violated and stood against the wise and honorable leadership" of the cleric.

"If you would ever fail to comply with [his orders], then I frankly tell you that you will regret it, and you'd rather die," said Sheik Jabir Khafaji, one of Sadr's chief advisors.

Among his followers' alleged misdeeds was the Monday night abduction of a U.S. soldier of Iraqi descent. U.S. troops continued a days-long crackdown on Baghdad's volatile Sadr City neighborhood, where they suspect the soldier is being held.

Witnesses said U.S. forces raided schools, mosques and homes over the last few days in search of the missing soldier. He was taken from a home in central Baghdad on Monday night after he left the Green Zone to spend the Muslim holidays with relatives.

Sadr City is a stronghold of bands of Sadr's followers, who call themselves the Al Mahdi army. Sadr launched the organization as a tool to mobilize and organize Shiites who are poor, young and devout.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials suspect that splinter groups under no central authority have started using the Al Mahdi army as a cover for various forms of criminal activity, including wanton targeting of Sunni Arab men.

Sadr has ordered followers to refrain from violence during the latest U.S. raids, and for the most part Friday the command held.

"The Mahdi army members are restraining themselves," said Qahtan Sudani, a 28-year-old Sadr City resident and supporter of the cleric.

"It's Muqtada's orders that confrontation with the occupier will be through peaceful methods."

At least one U.S. soldier was reported killed Friday, bringing the number of American troops killed in Iraq this month to 97, the highest for any month since January 2005. The soldier, assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, died of wounds sustained in combat in Diyala province Thursday.

A British soldier serving near Basra died in a motor vehicle accident, news agencies reported.


daragahi@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Baghdad contributed to this report.