Robert H. Reid
The Associated Press
BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister was misunderstood when he said the Americans could leave “any time they want” an aide said Sunday, as politicians moved to end a pair of boycotts that are holding up work on crucial political reforms sought by Washington.
In Baghdad, a car bomb hit a central square in a Shiite neighborhood, killing 10 people and wounding 25. Police said 22 bullet-riddled bodies were found across the capital Sunday, apparent victims of sectarian death squads.
The U.S. military said an American soldier from the 13th Sustainment Command was killed Saturday when a bomb exploded near his supply convoy near Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters Saturday that the Iraqi army and police were capable of maintaining security when American troops leave.
“We say in full confidence that we are able, God willing, to take the responsibility completely in running the security file if the international forces withdraw at any time they want,” al-Maliki said.
Those comments appeared to undercut President Bush’s contention that the 155,000 U.S. troops must remain in Iraq because the Iraqis are not capable of providing for their own security.
On Sunday, al-Maliki’s adviser Yassin Majid told The Associated Press that the prime minister meant that efforts to bolster Iraq’s security forces would continue “side-by-side with the withdrawal.”
Majid urged the United States to continue building up Iraqi forces so they would be ready whenever the White House orders a troop withdrawal.
Al-Maliki’s remarks appeared to reflect Iraqi frustration with American complaints that the country’s religious and ethnic communities have failed to move fast enough to enact power-sharing deals — the key to long-term stability after more than four years of war.
Legislation has stalled in part because of separate boycotts by Sunni legislators and Shiite lawmakers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Negotiations have been under way to convince both blocs to return during today’s scheduled parliamentary session.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, a Sunni leader, met Sunday with al-Maliki to discuss the Sunni boycott, which began last month following the ouster of the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani.
The Shiite-dominated parliament voted June 11 to remove al-Mashhadani because of erratic behavior and comments that frequently embarrassed al-Maliki’s government.
Sunnis also want the government to set aside an arrest warrant against the Sunni culture minister, accused of ordering an assassination attempt against a fellow Sunni legislator.
After the meeting, al-Dulaimi’s spokesman, Muhannad al-Issawi, said that the boycott would continue and if the speaker were replaced, the decision should be made by the Sunnis and “not imposed” by Shiites and Kurds.
But al-Dulaimi was more optimistic about a settlement that would allow the Sunnis to return.
“Things are, God willing, on their way to be resolved,” al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press. “The pending issue of al-Mashhadani and that of the minister of culture will be solved by the end of the week, and things will go back to their normal course.”
Hassan al-Suneid, a Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki, also said a deal was near under which al-Mashhadani could return to his post briefly, then permitted to retire.
Meanwhile, a member of the Sadr bloc said his faction would meet Monday with parliament leaders to discuss their own boycott, launched to protest delays in rebuilding a Shiite shrine in Samarra that was damaged by a bomb in February 2006.
“We will end our boycott when our conditions are accepted,” lawmaker Naser al-Saidi told the U.S.-funded Alhurra television.
Those conditions include a plan to rebuild the shrine and secure the road from Baghdad to Samarra, which passes through Sunni insurgent areas.
The absence of the two major blocs has delayed work on such key benchmark legislation as the oil bill, constitutional reform, scheduling local elections and restoring many former Saddam Hussein loyalists to government jobs.
Those are among the 18 benchmarks which Washington uses to measure progress toward national reconciliation. A White House report last week found that Iraqis had made only limited progress, fueling calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
The car bomb attack came in Hussein Square, a popular site of takeout restaurants in the central Baghdad district of Karradah. The afternoon blast ripped through nearby stalls and shops, killing 10 and wounding 25, according to officials at the two hospitals where the victims were taken. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
“It was a big explosion and a fire followed,” said one witness, the owner of a nearby mobile phone shop who would identify himself only by his first name, Haidar. “I rushed with others at site to see two burned corpses inside a car and wounded people.”
In northern Iraq, gunmen ambushed a convoy of border guards, killing six of them along with a civilian, a border guard commander said. When reinforcements pulled in, another guard died in the clash, which took place in the Kani Khal area, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad. The commander said the Sunni extremist group Ansar al-Islam was believed to be behind the attack.
Elsewhere, shootings in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and several areas south of Baghdad killed eight people, according to police officers in the areas. Among there were the wife and son of a city council chief, slain outside their home. The police officials and guard commander also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Nevertheless, Rear Adm. Mark Fox told reporters that the sweeps in Baghdad, to the south and in the city of Baqouba to the northeast, had stemmed bloodshed in the capital.
The offensives are “making a difference on the ground. We have seen a significant drop in the number of civilians murdered in Baghdad, the overall levels of sectarian violence has decreased,” he said, without providing figures.
Recent weeks appear to have brought a decrease in dramatic car bomb attacks, though bombings still occur nearly daily. But according to figures gathered by The Associated Press, the daily rate of bodies found dumped in Baghdad — victims of sectarian slayings — has risen slightly so far this month from June.
In the first 14 days of July, 301 bodies were found in Baghdad, or an average of nearly 22 a day, compared to 19 a day in June, when 563 bodies were found, according to AP figures, gathered from daily reports by Iraqi police.
Iraqi officials encourage U.S. help
Robert H. Reid