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Fair? Biased? Iraq divided on U.S. report

Times Staff Writer

From the halls of parliament to the bomb-blasted city streets, Iraqis on Tuesday appeared divided over whether reports presented to U.S. lawmakers on the country’s political and military situation were fair, biased, or a waste of breath.

The reactions to the testimony by U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker offered a glimpse of the fissures that slice through Iraqi society.

Representatives of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government welcomed the assessments, which emphasized that more time was needed to ensure political progress and solidify military gains. Maliki’s political foes, including Sunni Arab legislators and Shiite Muslims loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, derided the assessments as soft on the Iraqi government and designed to quench President Bush’s thirst for good news from a war he started in 2003.

A handful of Iraqis interviewed reflected mixed emotions toward the U.S. presence: that it is an unwelcome force but one that is preventing chaos in many parts of the country.

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“The Americans are and will remain occupiers and hated,” said Abu Jabir, a receptionist at a Baghdad hospital. Jabir, expressing a thought heard frequently among Iraqis from all backgrounds, said the U.S. invasion in March 2003 had done a good thing in overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. But he said the occupation had planted the seeds of sectarianism and it was time U.S. troops became less visible so Iraqis could begin taking charge.

“A quick American pullout is not good, as civil war may flare,” he said. “I think they should stay, but avoid the streets. Yes, we want them, but only as a backup and cover for our security.”

In his testimony before Congress on Monday, Petraeus suggested a gradual decrease in U.S. troops in the coming months, but one that would only bring troop levels back to what they were before Bush added 28,500 military personnel this year.

Petraeus told Congress that the extra troops had improved security. Crocker said political progress also was being made, although more slowly than U.S. officials had expected.

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Maliki’s government, which last month came in for a drubbing from both Crocker and Bush, quickly defended the pace of political reconciliation. “Our Cabinet and our parliament are transparent defenders of the interests of all Iraqis and not of the privileged few, as was the case in the previous regime,” Maliki’s national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, said in a statement. “That is why progress seems slow, as we work out the consensus needed to move forward in the interests of the whole country.”

A Shiite lawmaker from Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc in the parliament, also said the assessment was good news for the prime minister. “The optimistic points are more than the pessimistic ones,” said Hamid Mualla.

The spokesman for parliament’s main Sunni Arab bloc, Salim Abdullah Jabouri, had a different take. “The report was more pessimistic than optimistic, because it is realistic,” Jabouri said.

The 44-member Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, boycotted parliament for several weeks during the last legislative session to protest what it said was Maliki’s failure to set aside sectarian interests in decision-making. Sunni Cabinet members also walked out of the Maliki government this summer.

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Members of the parliament bloc loyal to Sadr, who staged their own boycott of the legislature early in the summer to register dissatisfaction with Maliki’s rule, said they suspected the Petraeus and Crocker assessments were a ploy to cast Maliki in a favorable light and provide an excuse to keep American troops here.

“It didn’t show the negative things on the ground, but it showed the positive things only. We are rejecting it completely,” said Abdul Mehdi Muttari, a spokesman for the Sadr bloc in Najaf, a Shiite city south of Baghdad.

Perhaps one of the few political leaders in Baghdad who did not watch the hearings on TV was Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister whose U.S.-backed administration was in power from June 2004 until April 2005. Allawi, a secularist who says Maliki’s leadership bears much of the blame for the sectarian violence in Iraq, said he had no reason to listen to the testimony.

“There is nothing new that it was going to tell us,” said Allawi, whose Iraq National Accord holds 22 seats in the parliament. “What’s going on here is not that good: sectarianism, violence, no institutions, services almost totally halted.”

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A few minutes earlier, a loud bomb had gone off at a busy intersection about half a mile from his Baghdad office. Police said the blast killed one civilian and injured five.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said that a “third-country national” was killed and 11 U.S. troops were injured when the massive base where the U.S. Army has its headquarters came under fire. A brief statement gave no other details of the incident at Camp Victory, near the Baghdad airport.

Near the southern city of Basra, a representative of Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was gunned down in his home Monday night, according to officials of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Hussein Husseini was the second Sistani aide to be killed this month in southern Iraq, where the Badr Organization militia loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council is vying for power with fighters loyal to Sadr.

The council, the country’s largest Shiite political group, claims allegiance to Sistani, putting its followers at odds with those loyal to Sadr.

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And a militant Islamic group claiming to hold a German man hostage in Iraq posted a video on the Internet threatening to “slaughter him like a sheep” unless the German government withdraws troops from Afghanistan. The group, which calls itself Brigades of the Arrows of Righteousness, has held 20-year-old Sinan Krause since February. It also had held his mother, Hannelore, freeing her in July.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Wail Alhafith and Mohammed Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondents Usama Redha in Baghdad and Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.

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