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Iraqi leader shrugs off US doubts

Two American soldiers killed in bombings

Boys examined wreckage after a car bomb killed a pedestrian and wounded five others in western Baghdad. The US military said it captured an alleged high-level Al Qaeda in Iraq leader at Baghdad's international airport. Boys examined wreckage after a car bomb killed a pedestrian and wounded five others in western Baghdad. The US military said it captured an alleged high-level Al Qaeda in Iraq leader at Baghdad's international airport. (Fadhil Maliki/associated press)

BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday shrugged off US doubts about his government's military and political progress, saying Iraqi forces are capable and American troops can leave "any time they want."

One of his top aides, meanwhile, accused the United States of embarrassing the Iraqi government by violating human rights and treating his country like an "experiment in a US lab."

Maliki sought to display confidence at a time when pressure is mounting in Congress for a speedy withdrawal of US forces. On Thursday, the House passed a measure calling for the United States to withdraw its troops by spring, hours after the White House reported mixed progress by the Iraqi government toward meeting 18 benchmarks.

"We are not talking about a government in a stable political environment but one in the shadow of huge challenges," Maliki said at a press conference. "So when we talk about the presence of some negative points in the political process, that's fairly natural."

Maliki said his government needs "time and effort" to enact political reforms that Washington seeks -- "particularly since the political process is facing security, economic and services pressures, as well as regional and international interference."

But he said if necessary, Iraqi police and soldiers could fill the void left by the departure of coalition forces.

One of Maliki's close advisers, Shi'ite lawmaker Hassan al- Suneid, unhappy over American pressure, said "the situation looks as if it is an experiment in an American laboratory [judging] whether we succeed or fail."

He sharply criticized the US military, saying it was committing human rights violations and embarrassing the Iraqi government through such tactics as building a wall around Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah.

He also criticized US overtures to Sunni groups in Anbar and Diyala provinces, encouraging former insurgents to join the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq. "These are gangs of killers," he said.

The US focus on the benchmarks has rankled the deep sense of Iraqi pride, even among those who share the goals set forth by the Americans.

But divisions among Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders have blocked the benchmarks. In August, Parliament is taking a one-month vacation -- a shorter break than the usual two months, but still enough to anger some in Congress who say lawmakers should push through reforms.

Two more American soldiers were killed yesterday in bombings in the Baghdad area, the US military reported. One of the bombs used was an explosively formed penetrator -- high-tech devices that the US military believes are smuggled from Iran. The Iranians deny the charge.

In other violence, a car bomb leveled a two-story apartment building and a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a line of cars at a gas station. The two attacks killed at least eight people, police said.

Also yesterday, the US military said it captured an alleged high-level Al Qaeda in Iraq cell leader at Baghdad's international airport. The suspect, believed to have organized mortar and roadside bomb attacks in the capital and nearby , surrendered without a struggle, the military said in a statement.

The Reuters news agency said one of its Iraqi translators was shot to death in Baghdad on Wednesday along with two of his brothers, apparent victims of sectarian death squads. He was the third employee of the news agency killed in Baghdad this week.

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