Sunday, October 29, 2006

BAGHDAD — A festering grievance between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the United States escalated yesterday with Mr. al-Maliki telling President Bush that America’s ambassador in Baghdad acts like a viceroy instead of a diplomat.

Hassan al-Suneid, a member of Mr. al-Maliki’s inner circle, said a hastily arranged videoconference with the president was needed because issues needed airing at a higher level than with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr. al-Suneid also said the prime minister complained to Mr. Bush that Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born Sunni Muslim, was treating the Shi’ite Mr. al-Maliki imperiously.

“The U.S. ambassador is not [L. Paul] Bremer. He does not have a free rein to do what he likes. Khalilzad must not behave like Bremer, but rather like an ambassador,” Mr. al-Suneid quoted Mr. al-Maliki as telling the president. Mr. Bremer had the power to make laws by decree, many of which are still in force today.

The exchange punctuated one of the bloodiest months since the U.S. invasion.

The military announced yesterday that a Marine died from wounds in Anbar province on Friday, bringing the U.S. death toll so far this month in Iraq to 98, the highest since January 2005.

Since the summer, Iraqis have been dying at a rate of about 3,000 a month, prompting Mr. al-Maliki’s government this month to stop releasing body counts to the United Nations.

Mr. Bush’s Republican Party faces possible loss of control of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections, with dismay over his Iraq policy a critical factor in voter intentions.

White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed talk of a rift between Iraq’s leader and the United States.

“There are no strains in the relationship,” Mr. Snow told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base after the 50-minute videoconference.

Mr. Snow said that Mr. Bush told Mr. al-Maliki not to worry about U.S. politics “because we are with you, and we are going to be with you.”

Yesterday marked the fourth time in a week that Mr. al-Maliki challenged the U.S. handling of the war. The ripostes flowed from an announcement by Mr. Khalilzad on Tuesday that Mr. al-Maliki had agreed to a U.S. plan to set timelines for progress in quelling violence in Iraq.

Mr. al-Suneid, however, said Mr. al-Maliki was intentionally using the displeasure of American voters over Mr. Bush’s handling of the war to strengthen his position.

“It’s al-Maliki’s chance to get what he wants. It’s a chance for al-Maliki to force a better deal for himself,” he said.

Mr. al-Suneid said Mr. Bush accepted Iraq’s position that a renewal of the U.N. mandate for the U.S.-led military force was conditional on swift action to hand full control of the Iraqi army to the Baghdad government and the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraqi cities and towns when the army is ready to take control.

Mr. Bush also agreed to set up a joint military-operations room early next year that would give Iraqi authorities a say in the movement of U.S. and Iraqi troops, Mr. al-Suneid said. That is meant to head off unannounced raids like one Wednesday in Baghdad that targeted a purported Shi’ite death-squad leader.

Mr. al-Maliki, who depends heavily on Shi’ite politicians whose parties have heavily armed militias with links to death squads, complained angrily about the U.S.-backed raid and demanded he be consulted before such operations in the future.

The United States said that the death-squad leader was on a preapproved list and that the raid to capture him did not require specific Iraqi government approval. The man was not caught.

A joint statement issued after the videoconference between Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Bush said both sides “are committed to the partnership our two countries and two governments have formed and will work in every way possible for a stable, democratic Iraq and for victory in the war on terror.”

It said the two sides agreed to form a working group “to make recommendations on how these goals can be best achieved.” It will consist of the U.S. military commander Gen. George Casey, Mr. Khalilzad, Iraq’s national security adviser and its ministers of defense and interior.

Mr. al-Maliki has grown increasingly prickly as the U.S. has pressed him to rein in Shi’ite militias and crush death squads that have sprung up since a Shi’ite shrine was bombed by Sunni insurgents in February. Thousands of Sunnis and Shi’ites have died in revenge attacks, many under brutal torture.

Violence also returned to the capital after five days of relative calm following the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

One person was killed and 35 wounded when a rocket slammed into an outdoor market in Baghdad’s turbulent southern neighborhood of Dora, while a bomb in a minibus killed a second person and wounded nine in an eastern district, police said.

Police also found 10 bodies of victims of apparent sectarian violence — seven in several parts of Baghdad and three in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital.

Eleven other persons were reported killed in shootings and bomb attacks nationwide.

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