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Originally published October 26, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2006 at 12:43 AM

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What unity? Iraqi leader again contradicts U.S. officials

U.S. officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are increasingly at odds over strategy and goals, a division that American officials...

McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are increasingly at odds over strategy and goals, a division that American officials in Iraq say is making it harder to pursue their objectives.

On Wednesday, al-Maliki denounced a U.S. bombing mission in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City that the United States said had killed a notorious Shiite Muslim death-squad member. He also rejected a call Tuesday by the two top U.S. officials in Iraq for a timetable for his government to tackle the nation's most intractable problems.

"This government is one of popular will and national unity, and it is nobody's right to put timetables before it," al-Maliki said.

It was at least the third time in recent weeks that al-Maliki had publicly contradicted U.S. positions, and it underscored that he draws much of his support from the very militia groups that the United States is pressing him to dismantle.

The differences with the White House were also evident during President Bush's news conference in Washington on Wednesday.

"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," Bush said in an opening statement. "I'm not satisfied, either."

He said the United States was pressing al-Maliki to move more quickly and warned that "America's patience is not unlimited."

But Bush also said the administration wouldn't press too hard. "Look, we'll push him," he said, "but we're not going to push him to the point where he can't achieve the objective."

With less than two weeks before congressional elections, a clamor has been growing among Democrats and some Republicans for a timetable that would require the Iraqi government to resolve certain issues or face a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops. Polls indicate that Republicans could lose control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate, largely over dissatisfaction with developments in Iraq.

Bush acknowledged that the war has become a top issue with voters and noted that 93 U.S. soldiers have been killed so far this month, a rare mention by the president of the war's death toll.

But he said that it was al-Maliki's responsibility to find a solution to the violence and that the United States wouldn't be drawn into supporting one side over the other in a civil war.

"Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions," he said. "Our mission is to help the elected government in Iraq defeat common enemies, bring peace and stability to Iraq and to make our nation more secure."

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Identifying the common enemies has proved to be one of the most difficult tasks for U.S. officials, however.

U.S. military officers and civilian officials have warned for months that Shiite militias are responsible for most of the civilian deaths in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in May called them the biggest threat to Iraq's security.

But the militias, notably the Mahdi Army, led by fiery cleric Muqtada al Sadr, are also key to al-Maliki's support, and the prime minister has objected on several occasions to U.S. efforts to rein them in.

On Wednesday, al-Maliki said U.S. officials didn't get his approval before they conducted the bombing raid in Sadr City, where his core supporters and many members of al Sadr's Mahdi Army live.

"In fact, we will ask for a clarification of what happened, and this is an issue we will review with the multinational forces so it won't happen again," al-Maliki said.

U.S. military officials disputed al-Maliki's claim, saying they never enter Sadr City without coordinating with his government.

According to a U.S. statement, Iraqi soldiers were conducting the raid in Sadr City when they came under fire and requested support from U.S. aircraft. The aircraft "used precision gunfire only to eliminate the enemy threat," the statement said.

Last week, al-Maliki ordered the United States to release a Mahdi Army member it had seized in a raid for death-squad involvement. In August, al-Maliki publicly berated the Americans for a raid on Sadr City.

The tension between al-Maliki and U.S. officials also was evident Tuesday during a news conference in Baghdad by Khalilzad and Gen. William Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.

Khalilzad and Casey said they'd won approval from the Iraqi government for a timetable to consider some of Iraq's pressing issues, including disarming the militias, revamping the constitution and setting a date for parliamentary elections.

In elaborating on that agreement, Khalilzad said the commitment came from President Jalal Talabani. He didn't mention al-Maliki except to say that he took the prime minister at his word when he promised to negotiate with Sadr.

Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, is a strong U.S. ally, but it's unclear whether he has the authority to agree to a timetable on behalf of the government. Iraq's Constitution is vague about the responsibilities of the president and prime minister, although it appears that the prime minister — not the president — must approve agreements with other nations.

McClatchy correspondents William Douglas and Margaret Talev in Washington contributed to this report.

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