BAGHDAD – Iraqi leaders insisted they were making military and political progress, defending their efforts after the Bush administration gave the Baghdad government a spotty report card on a series of benchmarks aimed at bringing stability to the war-torn nation.
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War critics in the U.S. Congress have seized on the assessment as proof that President Bush's strategy in Iraq is failing, and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted Thursday to withdraw U.S. troops by spring 2008 despite a veto threat from Bush.
A top adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rankled at the assessment, saying Bush supporters and opponents in Washington "will both blame Iraqis" for the shortcomings.
Sami al-Askari said the government was serious in passing a series of political reforms aimed at bringing national unity and drawing greater Sunni Arab support for the political process. "From now until the end of the year, draft laws related to national reconciliation will be finished," al-Askari told U.S.-funded Alhurra television late Thursday.
But the reforms have been held up for months by political wrangling between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members of al-Maliki's coalition. Sunnis and Kurds have deep differences over a draft law to equitably share control of the oil industry and its profits — one of the centerpiece reforms — and no compromise is in sight.
The even tougher benchmark of amending the constitution — which many Sunni Arabs see as the most important of the reforms — remains on the back burner, relegated to a parliament committee. Sunnis want to water down the constitution's provisions on federalism, but Kurds and Shiites want only limited changes.
At the same time, al-Maliki's administration has been severely weakened by a Sunni Arab boycott of his Cabinet and parliament over separate political disputes. Talks to overcome the walkout — and negotiations over forming a new, more streamlined Cabinet — have so far brought no results.
President Jalal Talabani said there were "positive developments on the political level," particularly in the effort to reshape the Cabinet to establish "a front of moderate forces committed to the political process and democracy in Iraq."
He also said the military offensives being waged by U.S. troops in and around Baghdad were making progress. "A successful campaign is on to eliminate terrorists and so far large areas of Diyala and Anbar have been cleared," Talabani said Thursday evening, referring to provinces north and west of the capital.
The U.S. offensives have brought a relative easing in attacks in the capital in recent weeks — though it remains far from calm, with occasional car bombs and police still reporting 20 to 30 bodies a day found dumped in the city, apparent victims of sectarian slayings.
On Friday, a volley of at least four mortars were fired from the city's dangerous southern districts at the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where al-Maliki's offices and the U.S. Embassy are located. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
U.S. troops on Thursday battled with Shiite militants in an eastern neighborhood of the city after capturing two extremists in a raid before dawn. The U.S. military said Friday that nine insurgents and two civilians — two Iraqi employees of the London-based Reuters news agency — were killed in the fighting. Iraqi police and hospital officials put the toll at 19, including at least one woman and two children.
The U.S. military on Friday said the fighting in the Amin district took place when troops on the initial raid came under attack from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, prompting the American forces to return fire and call in aviation reinforcement. Thirteen insurgents were detained, it said.
During the fighting, a U.S. helicopter struck targets on the ground as gunmen exchanged mortar and small arms fire with the Americans, said an Iraqi police official who was at the scene. Explosions hit several residential buildings, said the official, though he could not say which side caused the blasts.
AP Television News footage showed buildings riddled with holes from heavy machine gun and rocket fire, and a minibus with its front seat blasted away.
Officials from the three hospitals where the victims were taken put the toll at 19 dead and 20 wounded. The hospital and police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to reporters. The discrepancy with the American count could not be immediately explained.
The military expressed regrets for the two civilians it said died. "There is no question that Coalition Forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a military spokesman.
Angry residents — many of them Shiites who fled to Baghdad from Baqouba, where U.S. troops are waging an offensive against insurgents — blamed the Americans for the destruction.
"We are refugees, we were displaced from our homes by militant attacks," said one woman, who like others had come to the neighborhood from Baqouba. "And now we have to deal with attacks from Americans."
"They hit the building and destroyed it completely. My mother is dead, my sister is dead. I don't know where my father is," said the woman, who refused to identify herself, speaking in front of a residential building where the ground floor of shops was gutted.
U.S. strikes in Shiite districts are highly sensitive for al-Maliki, whose bedrock support is from the majority Shiite community. Shiites have complained of casualties in U.S. hunting for militants — often Shiite — firing mortars at the Green Zone.
The U.S. military says it tries to avoid civilian casualties but that militants hide in populated areas, and al-Maliki has also accused insurgents of using civilians as shields.