Iraqi leader lashes out

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s embattled prime minister accused his U.S. critics Sunday of going too far, saying they did not appreciate the scale of the disaster facing his country and the achievements of his government.

“The most important achievement is it stopped a sectarian and civil war,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.

The Iraqi leader has come under increasing pressure ahead of a report due next week by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus. Their findings will focus on what has been achieved since President Bush ordered the deployment of 28,500 additional troops early in 2007.

U.S. officials here and in Washington have highlighted modest gains on the security front. But they have voiced increasing frustration with al-Maliki for failing to unite his fractured government and get key legislation passed.

“Those who are judging the Iraqi experiment in this quick way may not realize the scale of the destruction and sabotage that Iraq has experienced,” al-Maliki told reporters in Baghdad.

He said he understood that U.S. politicians have elections to think about. But, he said, “these statements sometimes go beyond the rational limits.”

“At the same time,” he said, they send “messages that encourage terrorism.”

U.S. officials had hoped for greater progress on legislation governing the distribution of oil revenue, providing jobs for ousted members of Saddam Hus­sein’s regime and other issues that divide Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

In a bid to ease tensions among the majority Shiite Muslims, al- Maliki ordered what he promised would be an unbiased investigation into fighting that killed more than 50 people during a religious festival in Karbala last week.

The move came just hours after the office of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened unspecified consequences if the government did not stop targeting his followers for arrest, raising the possibility that he could reverse a decision to suspend the operations of his Mahdi Army militia.

U.S. officials had called the militia’s stand down “encouraging,” saying it could allow the military to focus on fighting Sunni Arab insurgents blamed for many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq.

The clashes in Karbala on Tuesday, in which members of Iraq’s two biggest Shiite militias faced off amid more than 1 million pilgrims, touched off retaliatory attacks in Baghdad and threatened to deepen violence across the Shiite-dominated south, where rival factions are competing for influence as British forces draw down.

Al-Sadr denied that his militia provoked the clashes and ordered his fighters to halt activities for six months while his officials root out what he described as rogue elements that are bringing the Mahdi Army into disrepute.

Al-Sadr’s organization, which waged two major uprisings against American troops in 2004, has sent conflicting signals on whether its freeze on activities includes operations against U.S. forces.

In the southern city of Basra, Iraqi security forces moved into Basra Palace, ahead of a formal hand-over of the last major British base inside the city center, said Iraqi Lt. Gen. Mouhan Saedi.

Many remaining British forces are based at the airport outside of Basra. The British Defense Ministry has said it hopes to hand over security responsibility for the city and the rest of Basra province, the last one under its control, in the fall.

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