baghdad -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki lashed out Sunday at U.S. and French politicians who have called on him to step down and accused U.S. forces of committing “big mistakes” in killing and detaining civilians in the hunt for insurgents.
It was the second outburst in recent days from the beleaguered leader, who has come under fire from allies and adversaries who accuse him of failing to unite his Cabinet and get key laws and programs in place. On Sunday, he drew fresh criticism from two influential Republican senators.
At a hastily called news conference after meeting with other Iraqi leaders, Maliki dismissed the calls for him to step down as “ugly interference” in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
He trained his angriest words on Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and her fellow Democrat, Sen. 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 told reporters. “They should come to their senses.”
Maliki also had harsh words for French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who visited Baghdad last week.
In an interview posted this weekend on Newsweek magazine’s website, Kouchner suggested Maliki step aside and let Iraqis find a more unifying leader. Kouchner, whose visit was the first official trip by a senior French official since the war began in March 2003, offered praise for Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, calling him “impressive.”
Maliki said Kouchner’s suggestion that he resign “cannot in any way be called diplomacy.”
Earlier Sunday, Maliki held a meeting with fellow Shiite Abdul Mehdi, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq Hashimi and the country’s top Kurdish leaders, President Jalal Talabani and Mahmoud Barzani, who heads the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The five held talks on how to salvage the unity government after the pullout of Sunni Arabs, as well as independents and some Shiites, from the Cabinet.
The leaders issued a statement saying they had found common ground on some of the main issues, including constitutional revisions to allow greater regional power, reintegration of ousted members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and laws regulating oil, gas and water resources. Those issues are among 18 benchmarks set by the U.S. government as a measure of Iraq’s progress toward self-sufficiency.
However, the leaders provided few details and made it clear after their meeting that much work remained.
The fractured and dysfunctional leadership has been the primary source of irritation for Iraq’s allies, in particular the United States, which in recent months deployed an additional 28,500 troops to improve security in Iraq to ease sectarian animosity and enable the Maliki government to set aside differences and get to work.
Bush administration officials had hoped Maliki could show progress at least on the most pressing objectives ahead of a report due to Congress next month by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus on the state of security and the logic of keeping the U.S. troop level at its current peak of nearly 162,000.
None of the benchmarks have been met, and infighting has prevented the Cabinet from even meeting to discuss some of the core issues.
Nevertheless, Maliki told reporters he expected the U.S. report card to be “supportive of the government.”
In Washington, two key Republicans, Sen. 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 U.S. military presence in Iraq, said Maliki had failed to rein in militias and provide greater security. The senator warned that he would consider backing Democratic proposals seeking to force a U.S. withdrawal of troops if Bush did not set a timetable for doing so soon.
“I’m going to have to evaluate it,” Warner 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.”
In Baghdad, the U.S. Embassy’s press attache, Phil Reeker, insisted that the president remained supportive of Maliki and the Iraqi government. But he also repeated Ambassador Crocker’s warning from a week ago: that eventually the Iraqi government would have to show it can manage the country’s affairs.
In his statements, Maliki also warned U.S. military commanders that they needed to take more care to avert civilian casualties. Citing raids last week in Shula and Sadr City, Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, Maliki said there was unacceptable disregard for residents.
“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.”
Iraqi police and hospital officials who responded to the Shula raid Friday reported that as many as 21 civilians were killed when U.S. forces in helicopters fired on the neighborhood as they pursued Shiite militiamen. The Mahdi Army militiamen, loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, are accused of carrying out executions of Sunnis and planting bombs targeting U.S. forces.
On Sunday, U.S. airborne troops attacked a pharmaceutical plant in Samarra that was raided by coalition forces more than a week ago. Police said two women and five children were killed in the attack that was intended to take out insurgents. Reuters news agency quoted a U.S. official as saying that 18 insurgents had been killed in the city.
Asked about the reports of civilian deaths, Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox, spokesman for the multinational forces, said all efforts are made to avert such casualties. But he accused gunmen of deliberately firing from behind civilians, exposing them to danger in hopes of discrediting U.S.-led forces returning fire.
Traffic was restricted Sunday in Baghdad to minimize the risk of attacks on a Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala, 50 miles to the southwest. However, gunmen fired on the procession in the morning, killing one woman and injuring six men. Another barrage five hours later left two pilgrims wounded.
There were at least two more attacks as the crowd passed through the city of Hillah en route to Karbala. An estimated 1 million pilgrims are expected to gather in the holy city by Tuesday.
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington and special correspondents in Baghdad, Hillah and Samarra contributed to this report.