BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister and the United States papered over cracks in relations at the end of a week marked by public disagreement on a timetable for progress in Iraq in the run-up to U.S. midterm elections.
In a joint statement after a meeting with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad late on Friday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his government had “timelines” for political developments — employing the word at the heart of the debate. But Iraqi officials, who say Maliki was angered this week when Khalilzad seemed to assure impatient American voters that the Iraqi leader was following a U.S.-backed timetable of performance “benchmarks”, insisted that any “timelines” were a purely Iraqi initiative and did not commit Maliki to action.
Nonetheless, the statement may ease electoral pressure on U.S. President George W. Bush, whose Republicans face possible loss of control on Congress on Nov. 7 in elections in which dismay over Bush’s Iraq policy is a critical factor.
News on Saturday of the death of a U.S. Marine in the restive western province of Anbar took the monthly toll for U.S. forces in October to 98, the highest in a year.
Residents in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, said there were clashes in the streets on Saturday and U.S. forces were using loudspeakers to warn people to stay in their homes.
U.S. officials this week were left struggling to explain their exit strategy from Iraq after Maliki denied he was working to a schedule and sharply criticised U.S. security policy, saying he could do better if given more leeway.
“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,” Friday’s statement said.
Apparently addressing speculation in Baghdad that Washington could try to ditch Maliki, it added: “The United States fully supports their goals and will help make them a success.”
Washington is anxious for Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim, to crack down on Shi’ite militias and death squads blamed for much of the killing.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Saturday hundreds of people every month were abducted, tortured and killed by death squads believed to include security forcers.
“Evidence suggests that Iraqi security forces are involved in these horrific crimes, and thus far the government has not held them accountable,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division.
U.S. troops made a foray into a Baghdad militia stronghold on Friday, hunting for a kidnapped U.S. soldier of Iraqi origin two days after a raid there drew a sharp rebuke from Maliki.
Iraqi and U.S. troops also raided an office of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad, arresting three suspects during a separate search operation for the soldier. Maliki’s Shi’ite-led coalition government depends on the support of Sadr’s movement, and he has struggled to balance the competing demands of the various members of the government.