- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flexed his political muscle yesterday by winning U.S. agreement to lift military blockades on Sadr City and another Shi’iite 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 Mr. 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 prompted celebrations among civilians and armed men in Sadr City, the sprawling Shi’ite district controlled by the Mahdi Army militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

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.

Mr. al-Maliki’s move yesterday 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 start a public fight with the Iraqi leader just before the midterm election.

More than 40 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country Tuesday, including 11 Shi’ites 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 about whether Mr. al-Maliki ordered the blockades lifted with or without consultation with American military officials in Baghdad.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the decision was reached jointly at a meeting attended by Mr. al-Maliki, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army 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 Gen. Casey ordered the actions after the meeting.

A senior American diplomat said Mr. 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.”

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

Mr. 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.”

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