BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces said they killed about 17 guerrillas in a battle north of Baghdad early on Sunday, after President George W. Bush promised Iraq’s prime minister more military aid in a bid to soothe recent friction.
“There are no strains in the relationship,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said after Bush and Nuri al-Maliki spoke for nearly an hour on Saturday after a week of public skirmishes involving U.S. and Iraqi leaders that have raised questions over Bush’s exit strategy ahead of congressional elections on Nov. 7. “The president is very happy … with the way the prime minister is working,” Snow said.
Maliki’s aides say he is furious at American pressure on him, and he and fellow Shi’ite Islamist leaders are concerned at what they see as a rapprochement between Washington and the long rebellious Sunni minority dominant under Saddam Hussein.
In a reminder of the sectarian violence, Interior Ministry sources said Baghdad police found 25 bodies, most tortured by death squads, in the past day. It was typical of the bloodshed that Bush has said is trying U.S. patience. He has vowed to stand by the Iraqi government — but only as long as it makes “tough decisions”, including clamping down on party militias loyal to rival political leaders. Some analysts see White House criticism of Iraqi leaders as preparing the ground for a U.S. troop withdrawal plan, once voting is over.
“We are committed to the partnership our two countries and two governments have formed,” Bush and Maliki said in a joint statement after their talks. Bush said last week, however, he would not leave his troops in the crossfire of a civil war.
Maliki’s office said Bush promised more help for the Iraqi forces. The prime minister told Reuters last week he could bring order in six months, half the time U.S. generals estimate, if troops were better trained and armed. He blamed U.S. policy for the turmoil and demanded more power to command his own forces.
No American soldiers were hurt in the overnight battle near Balad, 80 km (50 miles) north of the capital, the U.S. military said in a statement which described air strikes on militants preparing two separate ambushes for ground forces on the move.
So far in October, 99 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, the bloodiest month in nearly two years that has raised the possibility of the monthly toll hitting 100, a week before voting in which polls suggest Bush’s Republicans could lose control of Congress.
Aircraft from the U.S.-led Coalition attacked two groups of rebels, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns as they lay in ambush, the military said. On Saturday, three Iraqi soldiers were killed and four wounded near Balad, police said.
“Coalition aircraft thwarted two separate terrorist ambushes as ground forces moved toward their objective early Sunday morning near Balad,” the U.S. military said in a statement, adding four rebels died in one attack and about 13 in the other.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are operating in the region, where Sunni insurgents, some linked to al Qaeda, are fighting townspeople and militiamen from the Shi’ite city.
A Reuters reporter who travelled in the area last week saw the immediate aftermath of a fierce clash involving Iraqi police that blocked Iraq’s main highway north from Baghdad to Mosul and the Turkish border. Police quizzed drivers on their religious denomination and advised them not to travel at all near Balad.
Maliki, in office for six months at the head of a national unity coalition of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, has been struggling to stave off all-out civil war. Violence is killing hundreds a week and political wrangling has stalled reforms.
“We will defeat the enemy in Iraq,” Bush told an election rally in Indiana. “We have a plan for victory. Our goal is a country that can sustain itself, govern itself and a defend itself and will be an ally in the war on terror.”