BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister pledged on Wednesday to crack down on illegal militias after coming under pressure from Washington to take steps to curb violence and allow U.S. troops to go home.
But in a sign of challenges Iraqi leaders face in achieving “benchmarks” agreed with an impatient U.S. administration before congressional elections next month, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was the object of fresh anger after an overnight raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces killed at least four people and wounded 20 in the Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad.
The U.S. military said Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. airstrikes conducted the raid “to capture a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death squad activity”.
A relaxed-looking Maliki told a news conference he would deal with the militias: “The state is the only one that has the right to carry weapons,” he said. “We will deal with anybody who is outside the law.
“Everyone now realises that the existence of armed groups and militias harms the stability and unity of the state.”
Maliki has struggled to balance the conflicting demands of his Shi’ite-led coalition government. Sectarian and militia violence has escalated, raising fears of a full-scale civil war.
Six months after Maliki took office, with vital support from Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, he has made little headway on pledges to curb activity by militias.
Less than two weeks before the Nov. 7 U.S. congressional elections that have put President George W. Bush’s Republicans on the defensive over their Iraq strategy, ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the military commander in Baghdad said on Tuesday success was still possible, and on a “realistic timetable”.
Khalilzad said Iraqi leaders had agreed to a timetable of political and security measures and he expected “significant progress” on the steps in the next 12 months.
Khalilzad singled out Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia on Tuesday as needing to be “brought under control.”
Television footage showed five bodies in a morgue in Sadr City as well as at least six wounded, including one elderly woman, in a local hospital. The Interior Ministry said four were killed and 20 wounded in the action.
Angry relatives and the wounded blamed both U.S. forces and Maliki’s government. “Where is Maliki? Where is his freedom?,” said one man lying on a stretcher in the hospital. Another man in the hospital was shouting: “All this is because of Maliki.”
Local residents told Reuters at least two Mehdi Army fighters were among the dead.
There did not appear to be any connection to the hunt for a U.S. soldier of Iraqi descent who went missing on Monday when he left the safety of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone to visit relatives.
“We are putting all our assets into finding the soldier,” said Lt. Col. Steve Stoder. “We haven’t done any air strikes (in connection with the search),” he added, declining to say which areas of the city the search was focused on.
With Iraq a key factor in the U.S. elections in which Republicans are at risk of losing control of the U.S. Congress, the Bush administration is urging Maliki to make progress on security and the economy.
Bush insists the United States must stay to stabilise Iraq but the war is increasingly unpopular among Americans and many critics now want a deadline for U.S. withdrawal.
On Tuesday, a U.S. defence official said the British military hoped to withdraw troops from Iraq within about 12 months and British officials have told their U.S. counterparts the British military was “near the breaking point”.