BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The American ambassador and Iraqi prime minister issued a rare joint statement Friday in which Iraq reaffirmed its commitment to a ``good and strong'' relationship with the U.S. _ a bid to dampen speculation about souring ties less than two weeks before U.S. midterm elections.
The U.S. military announced a soldier died in dangerous Diyala province just northeast of Baghdad, raising to 97 the number of American forces killed in October _ the fourth highest monthly toll since the war began in March 2003.
The mounting U.S. death toll and raging sectarian violence are believed to be driving voters into the Democratic camp before the Nov. 7 congressional elections, and the Bush administration has sought ways to adjust its policies in Iraq.
The joint statement followed a tense week in U.S.-Iraqi relations, as Washington has stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to crack down on Shiite militias and death squads behind a wave of sectarian killings. Al-Maliki, whose political standing is beholden to the two main militias, has repeatedly said he would disband ``illegal armed groups'' but so far has taken little action.
On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced the centerpiece of the Bush administration's new strategy: the establishment of a timeline to curb violence and solve other Iraqi problems. He said al-Maliki had agreed to the plan.
But over the next two days, al-Maliki publicly and heatedly declared that he saw imposition of timelines as an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. Then he declared that the timeline program was a product of U.S. electoral politics.
The White House on Thursday claimed al-Maliki's comments were taken out of context. But hours later, the Iraqi leader reissued the same complaint, unambiguously in an interview with British journalists.
Friday's joint statement was issued in English on a U.S. embassy letterhead and in Arabic by the prime minister's office after Khalilzad and al-Maliki held an unannounced meeting earlier in the day.
It said the ``Iraqi government has made clear the issues that must be resolved with timelines.''
Language in the statement suggested a clear attempt to dampen further speculation about a growing rift in ties between the two governments.
``The government of Iraq is committed to a good and strong relationship with the U.S. government to work together toward a democratic, stable Iraq, and to confront the terrorist challenges in light of the strategic alliance between the two countries,'' it said.
Baghdad has been awash with speculation that the Bush administration was preparing to dump al-Maliki, who was the compromise candidate for prime minister from among the dominant Shiite Muslims in parliament. His government has been in power five months.
In an apparent bid to squelch such talk, the statement said, ``The United States will continue to stand by the Iraqi government.''
Given U.S. goals of leaving behind a democratic government in Iraq, direct American intervention against al-Maliki would have created an outcry. But had Washington decided to withdraw political support and pull U.S. forces back into their bases, the streets of the capital would likely have erupted into all-out civil war and created a political crisis that would have forced a government change.
Baghdad's post-Ramadan calm held into a fifth day, as a flood of U.S. troops continued combing dangerous neighborhoods for a kidnapped American soldier, whose Iraqi family on Friday issued a plea for mercy.
There were only two reported violent deaths in the capital and eight elsewhere in the country. But authorities in Suwayrah and Kut, south of Baghdad, reported pulling nine more bodies from the Tigris River, tortured and shot to death.
The U.S. military refused to confirm the identity of the kidnapped U.S. soldier, after the independent Sharqiyah TV channel said he was Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a naturalized American born in Iraq. The television station said his mother asked his captors to show him mercy as a fellow Muslim. It did not show video of the appeal.
The quiet in Baghdad, which has proven illusive over the longer term, followed a day of bloody house-to-house fighting that killed 43 people outside a chaotic city to the north.
The battle between Sunni insurgents and Iraqi police near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killed one civilian and 24 police. U.S. troops later joined the fight, aiding in a counterattack in which 18 insurgents died, eight were wounded and 27 captured, the military said.