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Iraqi prime minister asserts independence, gains stature

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the dismantling of US checkpoints in Bagdhad, prompting boasts from Shiite militants.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 2, 2006


Shiites from the crowded Baghdad district of Sadr City are reveling in what they deem their "victory" over American forces after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday ordered the dismantling of US and Iraqi checkpoints surrounding the area.

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The checkpoints – manned by US and Iraqi troops for a week in an effort to find a kidnapped US military translator of Iraqi descent as well as snare an alleged death-squad leader – had snarled traffic and bred growing anger in the slum.

They also provided Mr. Maliki with a chance to further assert his independence after weeks of friction between Washington and Baghdad – just days before US midterm elections, in which the Iraq war has become a defining issue.

Aides to the premier have said that they want to take advantage of the vote, and the unpopularity of Mr. Bush and the Iraq war, to expand Maliki's authority. The new assertive tack is boosting the portrayal of Maliki as commander in chief.

The US pullback is being seen in Sadr City as a loss for the Americans, even as Maliki has shown that he can issue orders and deliver – though he has yet to follow through on vows to stanch sectarian killings.

At the same time, anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has been accused of playing a key role in sectarian murders, has also gained from a careful marshalling of his loyalists. Militiamen enforced a general strike on Tuesday to protest the US "siege," shutting down shops, offices, and schools.

Maliki's decision caught US commanders off guard, but was nonetheless carried out on the ground. The US Embassy insisted later that a joint Iraqi-US decision had been made.

Some Sadr City residents said the growing threat of unrest prompted the US acceptance of the checkpoint dismantling.

"The Americans agreed with Maliki's decision to leave Sadr City because of the US elections," says a driver with the nickname Abu Haidar. "If they let [the unrest] continue, it will spread. Moqtada [al-Sadr] and Maliki played it very well."

"It's a tactical loss for the Americans," says a jobless resident nicknamed Abu Ali, who says the decision to pull back was wise. "Because if they stayed [and violence flared], they would lose much more, not just in Iraq, but in the US."

A primary complaint echoing in Sadr City is that the US-Iraqi checkpoints did little to stop the violence: 26 laborers died in a market blast on Sunday. In the nearby district of Ur, also apparently subject to checkpoint control, a wedding party was hit with a car bomb Tuesday, leaving 23 dead, among them nine children.

Across Iraq Wednesday, police searched for at least 40 Shiites suspected to have been abducted by Sunni gunmen along a dangerous highway north of Baghdad. At least 27 Iraqis died in a spate of attacks.

Under fire by critics for not authorizing enough troops in Iraq, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that he had agreed to expand the size of Iraqi forces beyond the current 310,000 listed on the books as trained, and the previous goal of 325,000.

In Baghdad, an increasing number of Shiites believe that the US is more to blame for violence in Baghdad than Sunni insurgents – a once-common accusation that largely disappeared last February, when sectarian bloodletting surged after destruction of a key Shiite shrine. Some even accuse US forces of deliberately planting bombs to stoke more violence.