Iraqi leader criticizes U.S. policy in meeting

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi prime minister sharply criticized U.S. policy Friday during a private meeting with the U.S. ambassador, pointing to America’s failure to either reduce violence or give his government authority over security matters.

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

In the statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the U.S. Embassy said they had agreed to unspecified “timelines” to make tough political and security decisions on the country’s future.

Privately, however, al-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, according to two of the prime minister’s advisers.

“I’m a friend to the United States, but not America’s man in Iraq,” al-Maliki told Khalilzad, according to Hassan al-Senaid, one of the prime minister’s closest advisers.

Previously, al-Maliki had vehemently rejected the notion of deadlines for his government to achieve key goals, but the statement said “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 said “Iraq and the United States are committed to working together to respond to the needs of the people.” It affirmed that America “will continue to stand by the Iraqi government” amid rumors Washington may be seeking alternatives to Baghdad’s current Shiite-led administration.

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

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

Following days of back-and-forth recriminations, the contrast between private criticism and the public statement brought into sharper focus a dispute that may have already undermined the Shiite-led government and increased friction between America and the country’s majority sect.

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

Al-Maliki draws political support from the groups backing militias. He says they should be drawn into the political process and disarmed peacefully. U.S. military and political officials have grown frustrated over perceived Iraqi government inaction on 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 both al-Maliki and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told critics to “back off” making unreasonable demands of the five-month-old Iraqi government.

Al-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 the government views 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 who belongs to al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. “Maliki rejects any exterior body giving a timeline for the performance of the Iraqi government.”

Prickly truths underlie the squabbling and confusion: Al-Maliki’s government has lost public backers over five months of car bombs, death squad slayings and economic misery, and it increasingly relies for support on narrow cliques of Islamist political parties, including the radical movement of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

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

At least one U.S. soldier was reported killed Friday, bringing the number of American troops killed in Iraq so far this month to 97, the highest number for any single 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.

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