Testing Americans, Iraqi prime minister wins U.S. approval to lift two blockades

Tuesday, October 31st 2006, 5:47 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) Exploiting GOP vulnerability in the November 7th elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flexed his political muscle Tuesday and won U.S. agreement to lift military blockades on Sadr City and another Shiite enclave where an American soldier was abducted.

U.S. forces, who had set up the checkpoints in Baghdad last week as part of an unsuccessful search for the soldier, drove away in Humvees and armored personnel carriers at the 5 p.m. deadline set by al-Maliki. Iraqi troops, who had manned the checkpoints with the Americans, loaded coils of razor wire and red traffic cones onto pickup trucks.

Their departure set off celebrations among civilians and armed men in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite district controlled by the Mahdi Army militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Small groups of men and children danced in circles chanting slogans praising and declaring victory for al-Sadr, whose political support is crucial to the prime minister's governing coalition.

The prime minister's challenge to U.S. conduct of the war was the latest in a series of acts designed to force the American hand and test Washington's readiness to give him a greater say in securing the world's most violent capital.

Al-Maliki finds himself in a maze of conflicting political pressures. After the Bush administration unveiled a plan last week for Iraq's government to adopt timelines for progress, especially in curbing violence, al-Maliki accused Washington of infringing on national sovereignty. There was no doubt he was talking tough to show both the Americans and his political base that he would not be pushed around.

The prime minister has further said that he feels stanching bloodshed might be better handled by Iraqi forces, although his argument does not wash given the present state of his military. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endorsed a proposal Tuesday to spend at least $1 billion to expand the size and accelerate the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces, underscoring the Bush administration's effort to shift more of the burden away from U.S. troops.

Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said al-Maliki was yielding to sectarian pressure and undermining U.S. efforts to curb attacks. ``Today, the critical issue in Iraq is whether the Maliki government can muster the political will to confront those who use violence to destabilize Iraq,'' Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a statement.

Al-Maliki's move Tuesday came three days after his closest aide, Hassan al-Suneid, said unabashedly that the prime minister was trying to capitalize on American voter discontent with the war and White House reluctance to open a public fight with the Iraqi leader just before the midterm election. Much of the discontent is fueled by soaring death tolls among U.S. troops and their inability to contain raging sectarian violence 3 1/2 years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in fighting in the Baghdad area Monday, one from small arms fire, the other from a roadside bomb. The October death toll stood at 103, the fourth highest monthly figure of the war.

More than 40 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country Tuesday, including 11 Shiites who perished in a suicide car bombing at a wedding on the north side of the capital. Four of those killed at the bride's home were children, and among the 21 wounded were several youngsters with burns over much of their bodies.

There were conflicting reports on whether al-Maliki ordered the blockades lifted with or without prior consultation with American military officials in Baghdad.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the decision was reached jointly at a meeting Tuesday among al-Maliki, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

They agreed to make adjustments in the checkpoints because of problems with traffic and pedestrian flows in the area, the spokesman said. He said Casey ordered the actions after the meeting.

A senior American diplomat said al-Maliki issued the order after the meeting ``to address the problems that resulted with the flow of traffic and the disruption of essential daily activity for the average citizens of Baghdad. This was a joint decision.'' The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity.

Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi said the U.S. military was consulted, but only after al-Maliki made the decision at a meeting Tuesday with his ministers of defense and interior and the national security adviser.

Al-Suneid said the prime minister acted without checking first with the Americans because the blockades had ``backfired and made the security situation in Baghdad worse. It is not important that such decisions always be made jointly.''

U.S. troops have increased their presence on Baghdad streets as part of a 3 month old security crackdown, but they had rarely set up checkpoints in the city until the U.S. soldier was abducted a week ago in the Karradah district in central Baghdad. American forces sealed the neighborhood October 23rd and closed Sadr City two days later, apparently believing the missing man was being held there. U.S. forces lifted the blockades in both areas Tuesday.

Al-Maliki's order came just hours after al-Sadr announced a campaign of civil disobedience in Sadr City, a district of 2.5 million people in the northeast corner of Baghdad. Armed men forced shops to close, hustled children out of schools and blocked residents from going to jobs in other parts of the capital.

As soon as news broke that the security cordon was lifted, al-Sadr supporters declared it a victory for their leader.

``If they had not lifted the siege, our strike would have spread to the rest of Baghdad tomorrow and the whole of Iraq the next day,'' said Jalil Nouri, a senior al-Sadr aide.

In issuing the order to lift the blockade, the prime minister said U.S.-manned checkpoints should not be established in Baghdad except during curfew hours from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. He also said U.S. and Iraq forces would not give up on trying to calm the capital.

``Joint efforts continue to pursue terrorists and outlaws who expose the lives of citizens to killings, abductions and explosions,'' said the statement, issued in al-Maliki's name in his capacity both as prime minister and commander of the Iraqi armed forces.