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.

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.

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.

"The bombs came after the Americans came. When they are there, they are controlling security, so who is to blame?" says Ali al-Saidi, an Internet cafe owner. "When [US forces] entered Sadr City, we were worried. When they leave, we feel safer."

"The Americans are trying to make trouble in Sadr City," asserts Abu Ali. "They want to return Sadr City and the Mahdi Army to a war situation."

US forces fought pitched battles with the Mahdi Army in the holy city of Najaf and in Sadr City in April and August 2004. Sadr has since ordered his fighters not to attack US forces, and his support of Maliki's fragile Shiite coalition ended a months-long deadlock earlier this year.

After Maliki's order to remove the checkpoints, Sadr's office crowed in a statement to supporters: "Your patience and unity brought victory."

US forces have rubbed increasingly against Sadr's militia in recent months, with friction turning to gunfights at times. And the Mahdi Army, while winning kudos among many Shiites for defending them against Sunni insurgent attack, is also believed to be behind some sectarian killings that are leaving more than 2,500 Iraqis dead each month.

A second purpose of the US-Iraqi checkpoints was to snare a Shiite man alleged to be a death-squad leader. Residents and Sadr supporters jump to Abu Deraa's defense, countering that he is a simple man with a penchant for helping hostages get released from kidnapping gangs.

"One man gave him a camel for helping free his son," says Abu Kumail, a money changer who has seven children. "He saved a Sunni man from a gang – does that mean he is a leader of the death squads?"

"We are feeling that whenever [Americans] raid in Sadr City, they leave many bombs and IEDs [roadside bombs]," says Abu Kumail. "Who is the terrorist? We didn't know terrorism in our country before the [2003] US invasion."

Coming after one of the bloodiest months for US troops since the 2003 Iraq campaign began – 105 Americans died in October – some say US commanders preferred not to push harder on Sadr City now.

"It's a victory for the Iraqi people," says Abu Kumail. "They obeyed the cleric's order [for a strike], and they proved to the government and American soldiers they are peaceful people, and civilized.

"It's a victory, too, for the government," he adds. "They proved their power with a decision, a small justice that is fair to the people."

In a suburb that is home to an estimated 2.5 million Iraqis, Maliki's decision is resounding widely.

But so, too, do rumors that US troops are behind some of the blasts. Among the most common reasons cited here for a US interest in more war: Iraqi Shiites and militias have grown too powerful, both in government and outside of it; and even more conflict would justify a longer US presence, according to this perception.

"The Americans have different ways to make these blasts," charges Abu Ali, the jobless young man. "Sometimes they do it, and plant these bombs. Sometimes they create the good environment for bombs."

"We are not seeing [bombs being planted], but the Americans control the night," he adds, making a deductive leap. "All IEDs and bombs are planted at night, in the curfew."

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