Iraqi govt under US pressure on security
Baghdad, Oct 25: Iraq's government was under pressure from Washington today to take forceful action to meet a timetable of measures over the next year to curb violence and allow US troops to go home.
But in a sign of the challenges the Iraqi government faces in achieving Washington's ''benchmarks'', Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki was the object of fresh anger after airstrikes and raids by US and Iraqi troops killed five people in the Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad overnight, witnesses said.
A Reuters television cameraman filmed five bodies in a morgue in Sadr City as well as at least six wounded, including one elderly woman, in a hospital. Several residents said air attacks took place alongside ground raids.
Angry relatives and the wounded blamed both US forces and Maliki's government. ''Where is Maliki? Where is his freedom?,'' said one man lying on a stretcher in the hospital.
Less than two weeks ahead of US congressional elections that have put President George W Bush's Republicans on the defensive over their Iraq strategy, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the military commander in Baghdad yesterday said success was still possible, and on a ''realistic timetable.'' Khalilzad said Iraqi leaders had agreed to a timetable of political and security measures and he expected ''significant progress'' on the steps in the next 12 months.
Maliki, who was due to hold a news conference later today, has struggled to balance the conflicting demands of his Shi'ite coalition government. Sectarian and militia violence has escalated, raising fears of a full-scale civil war.
Six months after Maliki took office, with vital support from Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he has made little headway on pledges to curb activity by militias.
Khalilzad singled out Sadr's Mehdi Army militia as needing to be ''brought under control.'' The US military had no immediate comment on the activity in Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mehdi Army. A witness told Reuters at least two Mehdi Army fighters were among the dead.
It was not immediately clear if there was any connection to the hunt for a US soldier of Iraqi descent who went missing on Monday when he left the safety of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone to visit relatives.
''We are putting all our assets into finding the soldier,'' said Lt. Col. Steve Stoder. ''We haven't done any air strikes (in connection with the search),'' he added, declining to say which areas of the city the search was focused on.
With Iraq a key factor in November 7 elections in which Bush's Republicans are at risk of losing control of the US Congress, his administration is urging Maliki to make progress on security and the economy.
Bush insists the United States must stay to stabilise Iraq but the war is increasingly unpopular among Americans and many critics now want a deadline for US withdrawal.
Yesterday, a US defence official said the British military hoped to withdraw troops from Iraq within about 12 months and British officials have told their US counterparts the UK military was ''near the breaking point.''