Exploiting GOP vulnerability in the Nov. 7 elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flexed his political muscle Tuesday and won U.S. agreement to lift military blockades on Sadr City and another Shiite enclave where an American soldier was abducted.
U.S. forces, who had set up the checkpoints in Baghdad last week as part of an unsuccessful search for the soldier, drove away in Humvees and armored personnel carriers at the 5 p.m. deadline set by al-Maliki.
The American checkpoints disappeared within hours of Malikis order, reports CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, and along with them, American hopes of stopping their missing soldier being transported out of Baghdad — if he is even still alive.
The U.S forces' departure set off celebrations among civilians and armed men in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite district controlled by the Mahdi Army militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Small groups of men and children danced in circles chanting slogans praising and declaring victory for al-Sadr, whose political support is crucial to the prime minister's governing coalition.
Prime Minister al-Maliki is desperate to show he's not America's man in Iraq, after what he sees as undue pressure form the United States in recent weeks, reports Logan.
Al-Maliki finds himself in a maze of conflicting political pressures. After the Bush administration unveiled a plan last week for Iraq's government to adopt timelines for progress, especially in curbing violence, al-Maliki accused Washington of infringing on national sovereignty. There was no doubt he was talking tough to show both the Americans and his political base that he would not be pushed around.
The prime minister has further said that he feels stanching bloodshed might be better handled by Iraqi forces, although the argument does not wash given the present state of his military.
Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said al-Maliki was yielding to sectarian pressure and undermining U.S. efforts to curb attacks. "Today, the critical issue in Iraq is whether the Maliki government can muster the political will to confront those who use violence to destabilize Iraq," Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a statement.
Al-Maliki's move Tuesday came three days after his closest aide, Hassan al-Suneid, said unabashedly that the prime minister was trying to capitalize on American voter discontent with the war and White House reluctance to open a public fight with the Iraqi leader just before the midterm election. Much of the discontent is fueled by soaring death tolls among U.S. troops and their inability to contain raging sectarian violence 3 ½ years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in fighting in the Baghdad area Monday, one from small arms fire, the other from a roadside bomb. The October death toll stood at 103, the fourth highest monthly figure of the war.
More than 40 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country Tuesday, including 11 Shiites who perished in a suicide car bombing at a wedding on the north side of the capital. Four of those killed at the bride's home were children, and among the 21 wounded were several youngsters with burns over much of their bodies.
In other developments:
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the decision was reached jointly at a meeting Tuesday among al-Maliki, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
They agreed to make adjustments in the checkpoints because of problems with traffic and pedestrian flows in the area, the spokesman said. He said Casey ordered the actions after the meeting.
A senior American diplomat said al-Maliki issued the order after the meeting "to address the problems that resulted with the flow of traffic and the disruption of essential daily activity for the average citizens of Baghdad. This was a joint decision." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity.
Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi said the U.S. military was consulted, but only after al-Maliki made the decision at a meeting Tuesday with his ministers of defense and interior and the national security adviser.
Al-Suneid said the prime minister acted without checking first with the Americans because the blockades had "backfired and made the security situation in Baghdad worse. It is not important that such decisions always be made jointly."
U.S. troops have increased their presence on Baghdad streets as part of a 3-month-old security crackdown, but they had rarely set up checkpoints in the city until the U.S. soldier was abducted a week ago in the Karradah district in central Baghdad. American forces sealed the neighborhood Oct. 23 and closed Sadr City two days later, apparently believing the missing man was being held there. U.S. forces lifted the blockades in both areas Tuesday.
Al-Maliki's order came just hours after al-Sadr announced a campaign of civil disobedience in Sadr City, a district of 2.5 million people in the northeast corner of Baghdad. Armed men forced shops to close, hustled children out of schools and blocked residents from going to jobs in other parts of the capital.
As soon as news broke that the security cordon was lifted, al-Sadr supporters declared it a victory for their leader.
"If they had not lifted the siege, our strike would have spread to the rest of Baghdad tomorrow and the whole of Iraq the next day," said Jalil Nouri, a senior al-Sadr aide.
In issuing the order to lift the blockade, the prime minister said U.S.-manned checkpoints should not be established in Baghdad except during curfew hours from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. He also said U.S. and Iraq forces would not give up on trying to calm the capital.
"Joint efforts continue to pursue terrorists and outlaws who expose the lives of citizens to killings, abductions and explosions," said the statement, issued in al-Maliki's name in his capacity both as prime minister and commander of the Iraqi armed forces.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday he was inclined to approve proposals by Casey and the Iraqi government to increase the size of the Iraqi security forces.
"I'm very comfortable with the increases they've proposed and the accelerations in achievement of some of their targets," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
But Rumsfeld would not say how big of an increase in Iraqi security forces has been proposed. Two other defense officials said it was far fewer than 100,000, and one official suggested it might be about 30,000. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
U.S. government approval is required for any plan to expand the size of the Iraqi forces because it could not be accomplished without additional U.S. funds and the provision of U.S. trainers and U.S.-acquired equipment.
Asked whether such an increase would mean that U.S. troops would have to stay in Iraq longer to train the extra forces, Rumsfeld said he doubted it.