BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister said Monday he expects the U.S. ambassador and military commander to give his government favorable marks when they report to Congress next week and predicted passage of a law soon that could return more Sunnis to government jobs.
To the south, Basra was reported calm Monday after British soldiers abandoned their last outpost there, leaving the country's second largest city largely in the hands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Also Monday, the U.S. command said an American soldier was killed and three others injured when a roadside bomb blew up next to their patrol on Sunday outside of Baghdad. No further details were released.
The latest casualties occurred a week before U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus are to report to Congress on political and security progress since President Bush ordered about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq early this year.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters Monday that his government was making progress toward national reconciliation and that both Crocker and Petraeus "are witnessing this progress."
"I expect that the positive developments will be, for sure, reflected in the report to Congress on Sept. 15," al-Maliki said.
The prime minister spoke before leaving for al-Asad Air Base to confer with Bush, who flew to the remote air base for a firsthand assessment of the war before the coming debate over the U.S. troop buildup.
U.S. officials are expected to tell lawmakers that the troop increase has brought some improvements in security but that progress toward power-sharing deals among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has lagged behind.
Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have blamed al-Maliki and called for him to be replaced.
Stung by those calls, al-Maliki said his critics have overlooked the achievements of his government, including a reduction "to a large extent" in sectarian reprisal killings.
At least 35 people were killed or found dead across the country Monday, including a total of five people who died in a pair of car bombings in the Iraqi capital.
The Shiite prime minister also said that a long-awaited draft law to ease the ban on former Saddam Hussein loyalists serving in government jobs has been completed and "I believe that the parliament will approve it."
Approval could allow thousands of Sunni Arabs to regain their jobs or receive government pensions and is among the 18 benchmarks set down by Congress as a condition for U.S. support.
It is unclear, however, whether next week's reports will ease congressional calls for substantial troop cuts and or change U.S. critics' impressions of al-Maliki.
A draft report still under review at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad includes allegations that the al-Maliki government is riddled with corruption and has tried to prevent investigations into alleged graft by Shiite-controlled agencies, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the findings.
Asked about those allegations, al-Maliki told reporters Monday that Iraq's top corruption fighter, Radhi al-Radhi, has fled the country because he was expected to face charges himself. Al-Maliki did not elaborate.
But al-Radhi told The Associated Press by telephone that he was attending a training course in Washington and intends to return. He denied the allegations and said al-Maliki should have spoken instead about corruption in the ministries of oil, trade and electricity.
In Basra, Iraqi soldiers hoisted the nation's flag over the Basra palace Monday after 550 British troops pulled out of the compound the night before. They joined about 5,000 other British soldiers at the airport 12 miles north of town.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the move was planned for months and that British troops would be available to help Iraqi forces "in certain circumstances."
"This is essentially a move from where we were in a combat role in four provinces, and now we are moving over time to being in an overwatch role," Brown told the British Broadcasting Corporation.
U.S. officials have been concerned about the prospect of British troops handing over control of a city where armed militias hold sway. Basra controls a key land supply line from Kuwait to Baghdad and farther north, and is also near important oil fields.
In a report last June, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said Basra residents and militiamen would consider the British departure "not as an orderly withdrawal" but as "an ignominious defeat."
"Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before," the report said.
But Iraq's defense minister said he was confident his military will be able to fill the vacuum and maintain security Basra.
"We are working very seriously to fill the security vacuum and we expect in the next few days to fill it in a good way," Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi said during a stopover in Beirut, Lebanon en route to Europe.
In Finland, a four-day meeting that brought together Sunni and Shiite groups from Iraq concluded with an agreement that one participant called a "road map" to peace.
Among 16 Iraqi delegates at the talks were reportedly representatives of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the leader of the largest Sunni Arab political group, Adnan al-Dulaimi; and Humam Hammoudi, the Shiite chairman of the Iraqi parliament's foreign affairs committee.
Participants said they agreed to consult further on recommendations to begin reconciliation talks including resolving political disputes through non-violence and democracy. The recommendations included disarming feuding factions, moving away from sectarian and ethnic disputes, ending the displacement of Iraqi refugees, and terminating the presence of foreign troops according to a "realistic timetable."
The participants also agreed to deal with militias by arming and training security forces to become an effective national force, while fostering economic development across the country.