BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki ordered U.S. and Iraqi forces Tuesday to remove roadblocks enclosing a vast Shiite Muslim neighborhood that is part of his power base and a suspected source of death squads.
Soon after, U.S. forces withdrew from checkpoints that had restricted movement in and around Sadr City since last week, when troops began searching for a missing American soldier and hunting for a death-squad leader.
The order to lift the cordon appeared to be a further attempt by Maliki to assert his independence from U.S. officials at a time when his differences with the Bush administration have sharpened.
Maliki said in a statement that checkpoints would be set up only during nighttime curfews or in emergencies. He added that his government would continue its battle against "terrorists and insurgents."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he had not been briefed by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, about the withdrawal from checkpoints. But he defended Maliki's record on sectarian violence.
"He has been in office less than the baseball season; he is focused on it," Rumsfeld said. "Again, it is easier to say reconciliation than it is to achieve it. It takes time, and it is difficult."
Rumsfeld also confirmed that the Pentagon would probably approve an increase in Iraqi security forces, although he would not specify a number.
Elsewhere, Iraqi authorities investigated reports that more than 30 people were kidnapped from three minibuses on a highway north of Baghdad.
A car bomb outside a pre-wedding gathering in Baghdad killed at least 15 people, and a separate bomb attack killed three people at the edge of Sadr City.
In addition, at least 14 bodies were discovered around Baghdad, some bearing signs of torture, officials said.
Maliki's order to take down the roadblocks in Sadr City and the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karada came after Shiite Muslim militants led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr called for a general strike and other actions in Sadr City to protest the checkpoints, where long lines had formed as U.S. troops stopped and searched cars.
Sadr's movement is part of Maliki's parliamentary coalition.
Maliki, a Shiite activist from a political party with close ties to Iran, last week criticized a raid in Sadr City as a sign of inadequate coordination between his government and U.S. military authorities, and told U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that he was "not America's man in Iraq."
That comment came after the Bush administration unsuccessfully pushed Maliki to agree to timelines for progress, amid growing impatience over the prime minister's reluctance to crack down on Shiite militias and make other changes.
Some analysts saw Tuesday's events as stagecraft aimed at shoring up Maliki by giving him the appearance of authority over U.S. tactics. Although troops took down some concrete barriers, other roadblocks remained at least partly in place.
"Do you really think that Maliki could put pressure on the Americans? This is a joke," said Hashim Hassan, a journalism professor at Baghdad University.
"It's all Gen. Casey in the end," Hassan said. "The Iraqi government works under him."
American forces have failed to locate the missing soldier and were under increasing pressure to remove the closures on the vast Sadr City neighborhood, which has 2.5 million residents.
The decision to back away from Sadr City "came as a result of debating between the two parties, and it seems that there was a satisfaction that the continuity of this siege would produce more tension and the complications would be bigger," said Ali Adib, a lawmaker from Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an Army spokesman, said he did not know if U.S. officials were aware of the move before Maliki announced it. He said the search for the missing soldier would continue.
Although some people said the restrictions had curbed violence by impeding the movement of armed groups, many residents of Sadr City held U.S. forces at least partly responsible for a bomb blast Monday that killed 31 people at a crowded gathering spot for day laborers.
Residents said American and Iraqi forces had left them without effective defenses against such an attack by removing members of the Al Mahdi army, Sadr's militia.
The neighborhood reacted with an air of triumph as American forces began dismantling the roadblocks. Residents shared sweets and prayers of thanks as motorists blew the horns of cars decorated with colorful streamers.
"This is a big victory against the Americans, for this oppressed city has always been oppressed under the Saddam [Hussein] regime and now," said Tahsin Sabih, a 28-year-old unemployed resident with three children.
Nabil M. Younis, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said it remained unclear whether Maliki would benefit politically by asserting himself on the roadblock issue.
Until now, Younis said, the prime minister has been caught between American and domestic expectations and insufficient freedom to act.
"He's just a prime minister in name.... He can do nothing," Younis said.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in Washington, and special correspondents in Baghdad and Tarmiya, Iraq, contributed to this report.