Iraq's prime minister urged parliament on Saturday to cancel or shorten its summer vacation to pass laws Washington considers crucial to Iraq's stability and the debate on how long U.S. forces should remain.
Parliament was scheduled to adjourn for all of August. American officials, however, began pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament late last year to pass at least two laws viewed as a way to defuse the sectarian violence crippling Iraq: one on the distribution of oil and another on how to handle former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
Al-Maliki's office said he discussed parliament's failure to pass key legislation during a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and presidential adviser Meghan O'Sullivan. There was no immediate report on the meeting from U.S. officials.
A statement by the Shiite prime minister's office said he "hoped that the parliament would cancel its summer vacation or limit it to (two weeks) to help the government solve the pending issues on top of which (are) the vacant ministerial posts."
In northeast Baghdad, meanwhile, the U.S. military said it killed six militants in an air strike on a Shiite stronghold. Iraqi officials and relatives of the victims claimed 18 civilians died in the attack.
The infusion of about 30,000 more American forces, completed last month, was President Bush's attempt to calm the capital and give parliament and al-Maliki "breathing space" to pass the legislation. But so far nothing of consequence has reached the floor of the legislature and some are predicting the critical oil law might not even be taken up until September.
The oil law, approved by al-Maliki's Cabinet but not sent to parliament because of major opposition, calls for a fair distribution of the income from Iraq's massive petroleum resources among Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis.
Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, have virtually no known oil reserves in their territories yet still oppose the current draft legislation. Kurds, who control large reserves in northern Iraq, also oppose the measure because it could loosen their control over a key asset.
Shiites, meanwhile, opposed the measure on former Baath members because it would allow many former members of the Saddam's regime to return to their old jobs. The former regime heavily oppressed Iraq's Shiite majority, which has gained political ascendancy since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam.
American commander Gen. David Petraeus must report to Congress on progress in Iraq by Sept. 15, and the absence of legislative progress will cast a heavy cloud over any attempt to paint a positive picture.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said it ordered the air strike near the Shiite stronghold of Husseiniyah after American forces came under small-arms fire from a structure there late Friday. It said helicopters fired missiles at the building and three gunmen fled to a second building nearby.
U.S. aircraft then bombed the second structure, setting off at least seven secondary explosions believed caused by explosives and munitions stored inside the building, the military said.
Iraqi police inspected the site and reported six militants killed and five wounded, it said.
The military account contradicted reports from Iraqi police and hospital officials, who said 18 civilians had been killed and 21 wounded in a 2 a.m. attack in Husseiniyah, an area in which Shiite militias operate openly near the road leading to volatile Diyala province.
AP Television News videotape showed wounded women and children lying in hospital beds, and white pickup trucks carrying at least 11 bodies wrapped in blankets to the morgue. Men unloaded the bodies, including several that were small and apparently children, as women shrouded in black wailed in mourning.
Relatives said the dead were killed in the air strike. The conflicting accounts could not be reconciled.
The Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, also said three houses were destroyed and five cars were damaged.
Loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia operates in the Husseiniyah area, condemned the air strikes.
In other violence Saturday:
— A minibus was struck in a mortar attack in the predominantly Shiite area of Baladiyat in eastern Baghdad. At least five people died and 11 were wounded, police said.
— Mortars also slammed into the eastern outskirts of Baghdad, killing two people and wounding four, another officer said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
— The U.S. military announced that a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in Diyala province on Friday, raising to at least 3,631 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
— The Iraqi army said troops have detained 46 suspected militants and killed five others since launching a new operation Wednesday in the eastern half of volatile Diyala province. A kidnap victim also was freed and two car bombs and six other explosive devices were seized, it said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have stepped up efforts in recent weeks against the violence in Diyala, particularly in the provincial capital, Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
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