- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said yesterday he expects the U.S. ambassador and military commander to give his government favorable marks when they report to Congress next week and predicted passage of a law soon that could return more Sunnis to government jobs.

To the south, Basra was reported calm yesterday after British soldiers abandoned their last outpost there, leaving the country’s second largest city largely in the hands of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.

Also yesterday, the U.S. command said an American soldier was killed and three others injured when a roadside bomb blew up next to their patrol on Sunday outside of Baghdad. No further details were released.

The latest casualties occurred a week before U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus are to report to Congress on political and security progress since President Bush ordered about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq early this year.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters yesterday that his government was making progress toward national reconciliation and that both Mr. Crocker and Gen. Petraeus “are witnessing this progress.”

“I expect that the positive developments will be, for sure, reflected in the report to Congress on Sept. 15,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

The prime minister spoke before leaving for al-Asad Air Base to confer with Mr. Bush, who flew to the remote air base for a firsthand assessment of the war before the coming debate over the U.S. troop buildup.

U.S. officials are expected to tell lawmakers that the troop increase has brought some improvements in security but that progress toward power-sharing deals among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds has lagged behind.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have blamed Mr. al-Maliki and called for him to be replaced.

Stung by those calls, Mr. al-Maliki said his critics have overlooked the achievements of his government, including a reduction “to a large extent” in sectarian reprisal killings.

At least 35 persons were killed or found dead across the country yesterday, including five persons who died in a pair of car bombings in the Iraqi capital.

The Shi’ite prime minister also said that a long-awaited draft law to ease the ban on former Ba’ath Party members serving in government jobs has been completed and “I believe that the parliament will approve it.”

Approval could allow thousands of Sunni Arabs to regain their jobs or receive government pensions and is among the 18 benchmarks set down by Congress as a condition for U.S. support.

It is not clear, however, whether next week’s reports will ease congressional calls for substantial troop cuts and or change U.S. critics’ impressions of Mr. al-Maliki.

A draft report still under review at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad includes charges that the al-Maliki government is riddled with corruption and has tried to prevent investigations into reports of graft by Shi’ite-controlled agencies, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the findings.

Asked about those charges, Mr. al-Maliki told reporters yesterday that Iraq’s top corruption fighter, Radhi al-Radhi, has fled the country because he was expected to face charges himself. Mr. al-Maliki did not elaborate.

Mr. al-Radhi told the Associated Press by telephone that he was attending a training course in Washington and intends to return. He denied the charges and said Mr. al-Maliki should have spoken instead about corruption in the ministries of oil, trade and electricity.

In Basra, Iraqi soldiers hoisted the nation’s flag over the Basra palace yesterday after 550 British troops pulled out of the compound the night before. They joined about 5,000 other British soldiers at the airport 12 miles north of town.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the move was planned for months and that British troops would be available to help Iraqi forces “in certain circumstances.”

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