BAGHDAD, Iraq – After a hastily arranged video conference with George Bush, Iraq's prime minister said Saturday that the U.S. president promised to move swiftly to turn over full control of the Iraqi army to the Baghdad government.
A close aide to Nouri al-Maliki said later the prime minister was intentionally playing on U.S. voter displeasure with the war to strengthen his hand with Washington.
Hassan al-Suneid, a member of al-Maliki's inner circle, said the video conference was sought because issues needed airing at a higher level than with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Al-Suneid said the prime minister complained to Bush that Khalilzad, an Afghan-born Sunni Muslim, was treating the Shiite al-Maliki imperiously.
"The U.S. ambassador is not (L. Paul) Bremer (the former U.S. administrator in Iraq). He does not have a free rein to do what he likes. Khalilzad must not behave like Bremer but rather like an ambassador," al-Suneid quoted al-Maliki as saying.
The remarks were the fourth time in a week that al-Maliki challenged the U.S. handling of the war. The ripostes flowed from an announcement by Khalilzad on Tuesday that al-Maliki had agreed to a U.S. plan to set timelines for progress in quelling violence in Iraq.
Al-Maliki's anger grew through the week until on Friday, al-Suneid said, the prime minister told Khalilzad: "I am a friend of the United States, but I am not America's man in Iraq."
After Saturday's talks, White House spokesman Tony Snow said of al-Maliki: "He's not America's man in Iraq. The United States is there in a role to assist him. He's the prime minister — he's the leader of the Iraqi people."
Snow said that reports of a rift between the United States and Iraq were wrong and that Bush had full confidence in al-Maliki.
"What you've got in Maliki is a guy who is making decisions. He's making tough decisions, and he's showing toughness and he's also showing political skill in dealing with varying factions within his own country. And both leaders understand the political pressures going on."
Snow said Bush told al-Maliki not to worry about U.S. politics "because we are with you and we are going to be with you."
Al-Suneid, however, said al-Maliki was intentionally using the displeasure of American voters over Bush's handling of the war to strengthen his position.
"It's al-Maliki's chance to get what he wants. It's a chance for al-Maliki to force a better deal for himself," he said.
Al-Suneid said Bush accepted Iraq's position that a renewal of the U.N. mandate for the U.S.-led military force was conditional on swift action to hand full control of the Iraqi army to the Baghdad government and the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraqi cities and towns when the army is ready to take control.
Bush also agreed to set up a joint military operations room early next year that would give Iraqi authorities a say in the movement of U.S. and Iraqi troops, al-Suneid said. That is meant to head off unannounced raids like one Wednesday in Baghdad that targeted an alleged Shiite death squad leader.
Al-Maliki, who depends heavily on Shiite politicians whose parties have heavily armed militias, complained angrily about the U.S.-backed raid and demanded he be consulted before such operations in the future.
The United States said the death squad leader was on a preapproved list and the raid to capture him did not require specific Iraqi government approval. The man was not caught.
It was not clear whether al-Maliki's tough stance in recent days is a matter of conviction or a bid to bolster support among his domestic constituency — or both.
A joint statement issued after the video conference between al-Maliki and Bush said both sides "are committed to the partnership our two countries and two governments have formed and will work in every way possible for a stable, democratic Iraq and for victory in the war on terror."
It said the two sides agreed to form a working group "to make recommendations on how these goals can be best achieved." It will consist of the U.S. military commander, Gen. George Casey, Khalilzad and Iraq's national security adviser and ministers of defense and interior.
Al-Maliki has grown increasingly prickly as the Americans have pressed him to rein in Shiite militias and crush death squads that have sprung up since a Shiite shrine was bombed by Sunni insurgents in February. Thousands of Sunnis have died in revenge attacks, many under brutal torture.
The Sunnis, particularly disaffected insurgents, have fought back vigorously in a sectarian bloodbath verging on civil war.
The U.S. military on Saturday reported the combat death of a U.S. Marine in Anbar province.
Violence also returned to the capital after a relative five-day calm following the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
One person was killed and 35 wounded when a rocket slammed into an outdoor market in Baghdad's turbulent southern neighborhood of Dora, while a bomb in a minibus killed a second person and wounded nine in an eastern district, police said.
Police also found 10 bodies of victims of apparent sectarian violence — seven in several parts of Baghdad and three in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital.
Eleven other people were reported killed in shootings and bomb attacks nationwide.