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US general says militias pushing toward civil war

Rogue forces unchallenged

BAGHDAD -- A high-ranking US military officer in Iraq said yesterday that the United States thought that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was running out of time to prevent Iraq from dissolving into outright civil war.

``We have to fix this militia issue. We can't have armed militias competing with Iraq's security forces. But I have to trust the prime minister to decide when it is that we do that," said Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the second-highest-ranking American military official in Baghdad.

Chiarelli's comments to reporters added to a growing chorus of concerns from US political and military leaders about the Iraqi government's ability and willingness to tackle corruption and militia-run death squads. They suggest that top American leaders are growing frustrated with the pace of reforms and may even be starting to argue for eventual US withdrawal.

Throughout the month, senior military officials -- almost always speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject -- have expressed frustration with the government, saying corruption and rogue militias backed by rebel Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are rampant. The military officials have complained of ministers using their offices to fill the coffers of their political parties and of government workers using their jobs to attack rival sects. They said the Iraqi government turned a blind eye, embracing a sectarian winner-take-all approach to governance.

American and some Iraqi leaders quietly say that Maliki is not willing to make difficult decisions because he is politically beholden to the followers of Sadr, who backed Maliki as the choice for prime minister. Maliki often has blocked US military officials from entering Shi'ite militia areas to make arrests.

``There's a political piece to this to see if they deal with these guys," a senior military official said this month, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``There is corruption and problems in some of these ministries, but it's got to be dealt with and it ought to be dealt with by the prime minister and the folks that are inside this government. I think the time is short for them to deal with that over time, because this can't go on like that."

Major General William Caldwell, a top American military spokesman, said yesterday that murders and executions were now the top reasons for civilian deaths in Baghdad. He said it was widely believed that Shi'ite militias and Sunni Muslim insurgency groups were doing the killing.

``When we say murders and executions, we're assuming murders and executions are in fact sectarian violence that is occurring within the city," Caldwell said.

In a poll conducted Sept. 1-4 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 77 percent of Iraqi respondents, including 100 percent of Sunnis polled, said they would prefer a strong government that would get rid of militias.

In other developments, the US military said eight people, including four women, were killed early yesterday in a raid in Baqubah that targeted a terrorist with ties to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Three other people, including two who the military said were tied to terrorist activity, were wounded.

During the raid, gunfire came from the building that soldiers were targeting and from throughout the neighborhood. The military called in an air attack.

Weapons and a global positioning system were found in the targeted building. American military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said the deaths of the women came after those in the building were warned repeatedly to stop firing.

Relatives of the dead disputed the US account, saying their family had nothing to do with terrorism, Associated Press reported.

``This is an ugly criminal act by the US soldiers," said Manal Jassim, who lost her parents and other relatives in the attack .

Iraq's major Sunni clerical organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars, condemned the raid as a ``terrorist massacre."

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