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Iraqis chafe at U.S. deadline pressure

Conflicting comments on the benchmarks illustrate the division among political leaders.

July 13, 2007|Ned Parker and Saif Hameed | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Leading Shiite Muslim politicians Thursday pleaded with Washington to stop imposing deadlines for reforms meant to stabilize Iraq and expressed frustration that their country's future was becoming a hostage of U.S. politics.

At the same time, comments by Shiite and Sunni officials reflected the deep sectarian rifts hindering reconciliation. A senior Shiite official close to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki accused Sunni Arabs of sabotaging efforts to meet Washington's goals, including the passage of a national oil law.

In turn, the head of Iraq's main Sunni political bloc called for aggressive action to implement the proposals as a way to combat Shiite militias.

The dueling comments, made as the White House released its assessment of the Iraqi government's progress toward 18 important benchmarks, gave a picture of the immense difficulties Iraq faces in becoming an effective democracy.

"As Iraqis we need more time. Maybe the American agenda has no more time. Initially the benchmarks were an Iraqi initiative. They were not an American initiative," Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite, told The Times. The Iraqi government composed the original draft of the benchmarks last year, he said.

"At the end we have an Iraqi process." Abdul Mehdi said, defending Maliki's government, which the Bush report says has made mixed progress.

Washington held up the benchmarks, including enactment of an oil law, and a program to rehabilitate former Baath Party members, as the price for raising its troop levels to 160,000 this spring. But five months after the U.S. buildup began, the Iraqi government has failed to make any broad progress, leaving it concerned that Washington may start cutting crucial military and financial support.

"This is a young democracy in Iraq. People have been oppressed for a long time. They never experienced democracy," said Abdul Mehdi, a favorite of Washington and a candidate for prime minister if Maliki falls.

The vice president listed several accomplishments of the often-criticized government.

"On the security issue, I think there are achievements," he said, listing the wooing of Sunni tribal leaders away from militants in Al Anbar province, a drop in violence in Baghdad, and the willingness of Iraqi security forces to confront militias across the country.

"On the Iraqi side you always need more time. You have those two clocks in Washington and Baghdad, you have to synchronize," he said.

Iraqi officials chafed at the conflict between Congress and President Bush over the benchmarks and at the negative characterizations of them by U.S. lawmakers.

"They want to rush the benchmarks for reasons related to U.S. internal affairs.... It is not like they want us to have an oil law and we don't want to," said Shiite parliament member Sami Askari, who is an advisor to Maliki.

"The Iraqi government is not required to adhere to the timeframe the Americans set."

Iraq's planning minister, Ali Baban, a Sunni who took part in drafting the oil legislation, complained that U.S. diplomats were pressing Iraqis to make decisions quickly, which suited Washington's interests and not those of Baghdad.

He blamed Iraq's current impasse over the oil law on American pressure.

"They urged all participants to finish their jobs in short time, maybe for some political reasons related to Mr. Bush or the American government," he said, adding that the pressure was brought to bear by former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who left Baghdad in March.

Maliki's government feared that if it didn't meet Washington's deadlines, it would lose crucial support, Baban said.

He compared the rush to finish and enact the oil law to the campaign by the U.S. Embassy to get Iraqis to approve a Constitution in 2005.

"Later on we discovered this Constitution was full of mistakes and weak points," Baban said. The Iraqi parliament is still working on revising the Constitution, which in its current form authorizes strong regional powers and a weak national government.

Baban said the latest draft of the oil legislation would allow provinces to control their reserves independent of the national government.

Shiite officials disputed his account.

Another advisor to Maliki, lawmaker Haidar Abadi, accused Sunni Arab parties of deliberately sabotaging the government. The main 44-member Sunni parliamentary bloc has boycotted proceedings since late June to protest an arrest warrant issued for the culture minister, a Sunni, and the decision to remove the parliament speaker, also a Sunni.

Abadi said Sunnis were trying to undermine the Shiite-led government in hopes of creating a crisis that would force the international community to step in, change the political process and give Sunnis greater power.

"The government cannot do anything regarding a group of politicians who decide to quit the government or decide to stall the political process or decide not to attend the parliament so quorum isn't achieved," Abadi said.

Sunni insurgent groups are aware that a second progress report is due in September, Abadi said, and are threatening to attack Sunni lawmakers if they do not stall the political process. The groups hope continued failure will push the U.S. to withdraw troops, he said.

In turn, the head of the Sunni bloc, Adnan Dulaimi, who is accused by Shiites of having ties with insurgents, called on the Americans to help make sure that the 18 goals are met. He urged U.S. forces to stay until Iraq's Sunni-Shiite violence stops.

"I think the U.S. has the right to ask anything from the Iraqi government. The Security Council gave the U.S. that right as an occupying country. Also, the Geneva Conventions gave the U.S. the right to ask the Iraqi government anything regarding administration and security."


Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.

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