Thursday, October 26, 2006

Angry Iraq leader hits back as allies try to stay confident

The Times

The Prime Minister insists that 'No one has the right to impose a timetable'

A FRESH rift opened between the Iraqi Prime Minister and his US backers yesterday when he bridled at American diplomatic and military tactics.

Nouri al-Maliki, anxious to prove he is not a US puppet, criticised a heavy-handed American raid on the Shia militia stronghold in Sadr City, made without his knowledge. He also repudiated the US assertion 24 hours earlier that his Government has 12 months to quell Iraq’s nascent civil war.

“This Government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it,” he said.

President Bush responded by saying that American patience was not unlimited. He said that he would continue to push Mr al-Maliki into resolving Iraq’s security and sectarian troubles. But, he added: “We will not put more pressure on the Iraqi Government than it can bear.”

Mr al-Maliki is in a precarious position, trying to rein in militias, such as al-Mahdi Army in Sadr City, without alienating his powerful government partners who run them. Mr Bush is himself facing political perils, with polls showing the Republicans in danger of losing control of Congress on November 7.

At a hastily arranged White House press conference yesterday Mr Bush said he was dissatisfied with progress in Iraq but insisted that the US would win.

Polls show US voters turning against the war in ever greater numbers but Mr Bush sought to maintain a dividing line with Democrats, some of whom want to pull out of Iraq within the next year. “There is a significant difference,” he said yesterday, “between setting benchmarks” for the Iraqi Government on the progress it needs to make and setting a “timetable for withdrawal”.

The President has abandoned his “stay the course” mantra, insisting that the US will respond flexibly to events on the ground. But, in public at least, he remains confident, saying: “The only way we lose is if we leave before the job is done.” Despite misgivings of some US officials, Mr Bush said that Mr al-Maliki was the right man to lead Iraq, “so long as he continues to make tough decisions”.

Tony Blair said that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would betray British troops, and that he would not do it. The Prime Minister said: “Let me make one thing absolutely and abundantly clear: there will be no change in the strategy of withdrawal from Iraq only happening when the Iraqi forces are confident that they can handle security. To do anything else would be a complete betrayal, not just of the Iraqi people but of all the sacrifices that have been made by our Armed Forces.”

In Iraq, US troops and Iraqi special forces launched the raid on northern Baghdad where supporters of Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr formed al-Mahdi Army, which now controls an area where two million people live. It is also accused of running death squads that prowl the rest of the city, murdering Sunnis. The US military said that the overnight raid netted 13 suspects and left as many as six “enemies” dead, although a spokesman for al-Sadr said that women and children had been killed and 18 injured.

The aim had been to “capture a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death-squad activity”, the US military said in a statement, although it was unclear if the target was among those captured. During the operation into the teeming heartland of al-Mahdi Army, militiamen attacked the US forces, which had to call in air strikes to cover their escape.

After the raid, a row broke out over who authorised it, with the US military insisting it had Iraqi government approval — something that Mr al-Maliki denied. ....

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