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With lawmakers set to reconvene, Maliki sees progress

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s besieged prime minister said Monday that his government was making progress on the political front and had submitted to parliament legislation that would ease restrictions on members of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime.

At a news conference in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said leaders of Iraq’s main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions had signed off on the bill, and he expected little opposition when lawmakers reconvened today after a month’s vacation.

Although he acknowledged that conditions could be better, Maliki expressed confidence that “positive developments” in Iraq would be reflected in the report that U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, were due to present to Congress next week.

U.S. officials in Iraq and Washington have said the troop buildup ordered by President Bush in January is starting to yield results, and they have increasingly put the blame for the continued bloodshed on Iraq’s fractious political leaders.

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The bill that would allow senior Baath Party members who did not commit crimes back into government jobs is one of a series of measures that U.S. officials consider crucial to reconcile the country’s warring sides.

But followers of influential cleric Muqtada Sadr, who make up one of the two largest blocs in Maliki’s governing Shiite Muslim alliance, have said they will oppose any easing of the ban. It appeared unlikely that the bill would clear parliament before Crocker and Petraeus presented their assessment.

Iraqi lawmakers drew sharp criticism in the United States for going on vacation while U.S. forces continued to sustain casualties.

A soldier was killed and three others were wounded when a bomb exploded near their patrol Sunday outside Baghdad, the U.S. military reported Monday. The death brought the total number of American military fatalities in the Iraq theater to 3,740, according to the website icasualties.org.

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Iraqi parliament members said the U.S. criticism was unfair because their leaders would continue to meet to iron out legislation for them to consider when they returned.

Despite weeks of backroom wrangling, there is still no sign of agreement on the other issues that U.S. officials consider key, including the distribution of oil revenue, a slate of constitutional amendments and a date for delayed provincial elections.

Maliki’s government was thrown into disarray by the withdrawal of nearly half of his 37-member Cabinet, including ministers from the largest Sunni Arab faction. Maliki told reporters Monday that he still hoped to persuade the Sunnis to come back, and that he would announce replacements for the departing Shiite ministers within a week.

While U.S. leaders consider how long to continue the troop buildup, British forces in the southern oil hub of Basra pulled out of their last base in the city center, which had been subjected to daily rocket and mortar fire by Shiite militias. Iraqi forces hoisted the national flag Monday at Basra Palace ahead of a formal hand-over expected within days.

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The 500 British troops in Basra Palace began rolling out late Sunday and had completed the withdrawal by midday Monday, the British military said in a brief statement. There were no attacks on them as they left. Britain’s remaining 5,500 troops are now concentrated at the airport on the outskirts of the city.

In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC that the redeployment would not affect overall numbers of British troops in Iraq. He said British forces would remain available to “reintervene” if needed in Basra.

“This is essentially a move from a position where we were in a combat role in four provinces, and now we are moving over time to being in an overwatch role,” Brown said.

The withdrawal is part of a drawdown of British troops announced in February that has sparked intense clashes between Shiite factions vying for control of provincial authorities, security forces and the region’s oil wealth.

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British officials have said that they hope to turn over security responsibility for Basra province, the last Iraqi province under their authority, in the fall.

Authorities in Najaf, meanwhile, announced that an Iraqi judge had sentenced 10 people to death and 392 others to jail terms from 15 years to life on terrorism charges related to a bizarre plot to kill top Shiite leaders this year during a festival in the holy city.

Members of a messianic Muslim cult known as Heaven’s Army, said to be planning the assassinations, fought a major battle with U.S. and Iraqi forces near the city in January. Hundreds of cult members were killed in the fighting.

Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded near a downtown Baghdad movie theater, killing two people and injuring two, police said. Police in the capital recovered the bodies of 15 men shot execution-style in the 24 hours ending Monday night.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Said Rifai in Baghdad and Kim Murphy in London, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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