BAGHDAD – Iraq's embattled prime minister lashed out at American critics Sunday, saying Sen. Hillary Clinton and other Democrats who have called for his ouster should "come to their senses" and stop treating Iraq like "one of their villages."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also lambasted the U.S. military for raids in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, adding new strains ahead of next month's showdown in Washington over the future of the U.S. mission.
The grim combination of ongoing violence and political deadlock have increased frustration in both Washington and Baghdad, with American lawmakers increasingly critical of al-Maliki's performance and Iraqi leaders growing weary of what they consider unfair U.S. criticism.
Clinton and Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have called for al-Maliki to be replaced.
"There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin. They should come to their senses," al-Maliki said at a news conference.
Al-Maliki denounced recent U.S. military actions in the Baghdad Shiite neighborhoods of Shula and Sadr City that according to the Iraqis resulted in civilian deaths.
"Concerning American raids on Shula and Sadr City, there were big mistakes committed in these operations. The terrorist himself should be targeted not his family," al-Maliki said "We will not allow the detaining of innocent people."
Two nights ago the U.S. military clashed with Shiite gunmen in Shula after they attacked an American patrol. The U.S. said eight "terrorists" were killed, but some Iraqis reported civilians were among the dead and injured.
U.S. forces also are routinely raiding Shiite militiamen in Sadr City, often calling in helicopter fire.
Al-Maliki launched his verbal counteroffensive about two weeks before the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due in Washington to report to Congress on progress in Iraq since the introduction of 30,000 more American troops.
The presence of those reinforcements has done little to bring about political reconciliation among Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — the key to lasting stability.
In the latest in a series of political crisis meetings, Iraq's top leaders failed again Sunday to convince the main Sunni bloc to join a new alliance of Shiites and Kurds to break the political impasse.
This month's decision by the Sunnis' Iraqi Accordance Front to bolt the al-Maliki government plunged the country into a political crisis.
During the meeting, attended by Crocker, the leaders endorsed holding provincial elections, releasing prisoners held without charge and changing the law preventing many former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from holding government jobs and elected office.
"We congratulate Iraq's leaders on the important agreement reached today in Baghdad," said White House spokesperson Emily Lawrimore.
"Today's agreement is an important symbol of their commitment to work together for the benefit of all Iraqis. We will continue to support these brave leaders and all the Iraqi people in their efforts to overcome the forces of terror who seek to overwhem Iraq's democracy. The President also welcomes the desire of the Iraqi leadership to develop a strategic partnership with the United States based on common interests," said Lawrimore.
But details were left to a committee to hash out and it was far from certain that those steps would soon be implemented. Iraq's oil law, for example, has been in the hands of a constitutional committee for months and has not emerged in parliament for a vote.
During his press conference, the Shiite prime minister said a negative report by Petraeus would not cause him to change course, although he said he expected that the U.S. general would "be supportive of the government and will disappoint the politicians who are relying on it" to be negative.
Nevertheless, al-Maliki appeared stung by the recent series of critical statements about his government, including one from President Bush, who said he was frustrated that al-Maliki had failed to make progress on political benchmarks. Crocker has said the lack of movement had been "highly disappointing."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday that al-Maliki's government "is still pretty much a disaster" despite some progress made.
"It's a democratically elected government, and I don't think we can dictate to them," McConnell said. Nonetheless, McConnell said, senators from both parties agree the Shiite prime minister has been "a huge disappointment."
In an interview with Newsweek magazine, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who visited Iraq this month, said he told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that al-Maliki has "got to be replaced."
Al-Maliki said the Iraqi government would demand an apology.
Criticism of al-Maliki's stewardship has fueled Democrat calls in Congress for an end to the increasingly unpopular war.
Last week Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said the United States should order a token withdrawal of forces by Christmas. Warner said such a move would show al-Maliki that Washington was serious about progress on reconciliation among the country's religious sects and ethnic groups.
North of Baghdad, fighting broke out in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, when about 30 masked gunmen stormed a house where American soldiers had established an observation post, according to U.S. spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly.
That triggered a gunbattle in the stairwell, after which the gunmen fled in a vehicle. Donnelly said U.S. aircraft tracked the gunmen to the house that was bombed. Iraqi officials said seven civilians, including five children, were killed.
The assault on the observation post led to "multiple engagements throughout the next several hours in the city" as troops from the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment tried to apprehend the attackers, according to Master Sgt. David Rhodes, another U.S. spokesman.
Fighting continued at sundown and "U.S. observation aircraft continue to monitor suspicious movement throughout the city while U.S. and Iraqi ground forces conduct patrols and building searches," Rhodes said. "Numbers of civilian and enemy casualties are still being assessed and cannot be confirmed at this time," he said.
In Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, fighting broke out between U.S. troops and Shiite militiamen, Iraqi officials said. Eight Iraqis, including two women, were killed and six others were wounded, said police Lt. Mohammed al-Shameri.
Elsewhere, a Kurdish security official said a U.S. helicopter attacked two Kurdish police outposts on Sunday, killing four policemen and wounding eight. The U.S. military said it was investigating the report.
Jabar Yawer, spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga militia, said two police vehicles also were destroyed in the airstrike 65 miles northeast of Baghdad and he believed the attack was mistaken friendly fire.
"We demand American troops to give an explanation for the U.S. airstrike against a police station," the Kurdish Interior Minister said in a statement. "The U.S. troops should take care to understand what troops are deployed in the border areas."
Meanwhile, waves of Shiite pilgrims descended on Karbala on Sunday for a festival marking the birth of the 9th century Hidden Imam. A woman making the 50-mile journey from Baghdad was shot to death by men in a passing car in the southwest of the capital.
More than a million Shiite faithful from throughout the world were expected to converge on the Shiite holy city for the celebrations, which reach their high point late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The Shabaniyah festival marks the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century.
Six men were wounded as they walked toward Karbala with the woman who was gunned down, according to Baghdad police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.