BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister slammed America's top military commander in the country in remarks aired Friday, saying he "risked his position" when he said Iran sought to bribe lawmakers to vote against a U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
Gen. Ray Odierno made the comments in an interview published Monday in the Washington Post, though he said he did not have definitive proof of the bribes.
"The American commander has risked his position when he spoke in this tone and has regrettably complicated relations," Nouri al-Maliki told a group of visiting Kuwaiti journalists in an interview shown on Iraq's state television.
"The man is known to be good and kind, but how can he speak like this about a baseless case? What has been said is truly regrettable," al-Maliki said.
His surprisingly strong worded criticism underlined the touchiness of the issue of relations between Iraqi politicians and Iran. The U.S. accuses Iran of meddling in Iraq's affairs, including arming, training and financing Shiite militants.
Many in Iraq's Shiite political elite had lived in exile in Iran for decades when Saddam Hussein was in power, returning to Iraq after the 2003 ouster of the late dictator's Sunni-led regime.
Iraq's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, was created in Iran in the early 1980s and its Iranian-trained militia, the Badr Brigade, fought on Iran's side in its 1980-88 war with Iraq.
The country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is Iranian-born and remains a citizen of the Persian nation more than 50 years after he arrived in Iraq.
Iran has consistently opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq and made no secret of its opposition of the proposed U.S.-Iraqi security pact, which provides for the departure of American troops by 2012. It has called for its rejection and accused Washington of pressuring the Iraqi government to approve it.
The pact has yet to be approved by al-Maliki's Cabinet before it goes to parliament for a vote.
Odierno, who last month succeeded Gen. David Petraeus as the overall commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, told the Post that U.S. intelligence reports suggested that Iran has attempted to bribe Iraqi lawmakers to derail the agreement, which is needed for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after their U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31.
He said he had no definitive proof of the bribes, but that "there are many intelligence reports" that suggest Iranians are "coming in to pay off people to vote against it."
The charge was repeated Wednesday in Baghdad by a U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, who said the military suspected that Iranian agents were trying to bribe Iraqi politicians to oppose the security pact, but that it had no reason to believe Iraqi politicians had taken the bribes.
"It's a whole different matter whether Iraqi politicians would accept that," he said.
But al-Maliki's comments and a statement by his government issued late Wednesday branding Odierno's comments "inappropriate" suggest that the Iraqis may want an official apology.
A senior Shiite lawmaker, however, said he doesn't understand why the government is making such a fuss over the remarks when it is an open secret that Iran has a strong lobby in Baghdad's corridors of power, including the 275-seat parliament.
The lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and claims to have rejected Iranian overtures to win his goodwill, said Iran has consistently been pushing its "agenda" in Iraq and that it should be no surprise to anyone that it would use all means possible to torpedo the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.