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Iraqi head denounces critics in Congress

Maliki also accuses US troops of mistakes

BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out yesterday at US lawmakers who have called on him to step down, and accused American forces of committing "big mistakes" in killing and detaining Iraqi civilians in the hunt for insurgents.

The embattled leader has come under fire from an array of allies and adversaries who say he has failed to unite his Cabinet and put crucial laws and programs in place. Yesterday he drew fresh criticism from two influential congressional Republicans.

Maliki aimed his angriest words at Democratic senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Carl Levin of Michigan. "There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages -- for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin," he said. "They should come to their senses."

At a news conference, the prime minister dismissed calls for him to step down as "ugly interference" in Iraq's domestic affairs.

Maliki and Iraqi lawmakers reported progress yesterday in efforts to meet some of the 18 benchmarks the United States has set to measure Iraqi progress toward self-sufficiency.

Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish lawmakers appeared on television with Maliki to say they had reached a consensus on holding provincial elections, releasing prisoners held without charge, and passing laws regulating oil, gas, and water resources.

They also said they agreed to change a law preventing many former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from holding government jobs and elected office.

However, the leaders provided few details and made clear that much work remained to be done before the plans are 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.

Maliki, a Shi'ite, met with Abdul Mehdi, the Shi'ite vice president; Tariq Hashimi, Sunni vice president; and the country's top two Kurdish leaders, President Jalal Talabani and Mahmoud Barzani, leader of autonomous Kurdistan.

The five held talks on how to salvage the unity government after the pullout from the Cabinet of Sunni Arab members, as well as independents and some Shi'ites. They failed again to persuade the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc, to join a new alliance of Shi'ites and Kurds to break the political impasse.

Bush administration officials had hoped Maliki could show progress toward at least the most pressing objectives before a report to Congress next month by US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Army General David H. Petraeus on the state of security and how long the US troop level should be kept at its current level of 160,000.

Although none of the benchmarks has been met, Maliki said he expected the US report card to be supportive of his government.

In Washington, two key Republicans, Senator John W. Warner of Virginia and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined the chorus of criticism against Maliki.

"Everyone knows that the United States and its incredibly effective military have given this government four years, an opportunity to get their act together," McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday." "By any objective standard, they haven't done it yet. They deserve to be criticized."

Warner, who last week called on President Bush to begin reducing the US military presence in Iraq, said Maliki had failed to rein in militias and improve security.

Warner said he would consider backing Democratic proposals forcing a US withdrawal of troops if Bush does not set a timetable for doing so soon. "I'm going to have to evaluate it," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I don't say that as a threat, but I say that is an option we all have to consider."

Warner, a former Navy secretary and onetime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is seen as someone who could influence the debate among senators who have grown increasingly uneasy about the unpopular war.

At his news conference, Maliki warned US commanders that they need to take more care to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. Referring to raids last week in Shi'ite strongholds of Shula and Sadr City in Baghdad, Maliki said there was unacceptable disregard for residents in the areas.

"There were big mistakes committed in these operations. The terrorist himself should be targeted, not his family," Maliki said. "When they want to detain one person, they should not kill 10 others."

Police and hospital officials who responded to the predawn Shula raid Friday reported as many as 21 civilians killed after US forces in helicopters fired on a neighborhood where members of the Mahdi Army militia hold sway.

The militiamen, loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are blamed for executing members of rival Muslim sects and planting bombs aimed at US forces.

In other developments yesterday, fighting broke out in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. About 30 masked gunmen stormed a house where American soldiers had established an observation post, according to Lieutenant Colonel Michael Donnelly, a US spokesman.

That triggered a gun battle in a stairwell, after which the gunmen fled in a vehicle. Donnelly said US 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 US troops tried to catch the attackers.

In Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, fighting broke out between US troops and Shi'ite militiamen, Iraqi officials said. Eight Iraqis, including two women, were killed.

Meanwhile, waves of Shi'ite pilgrims descended on Karbala yesterday for a festival marking the birth of the ninth-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 part of the capital.

The Shabaniyah festival marks the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th Shi'ite imam who disappeared in the ninth century.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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