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Iraqi PM 'Not America's Man In Iraq'

President George W. Bush on Saturday reaffirmed his support for Iraq's prime minister, telling Nouri al-Maliki that he is not "America's man in Iraq" but a sovereign leader whom the U.S. is aiding.

His comments come after the embattled Iraqi Prime Minister ratcheted up his high-stakes and increasingly bitter dispute with the Bush administration, telling the U.S. ambassador that he was Washington's friend but "not America's man in Iraq," aides said on Saturday.

In a statement after a 50-minute video conference, Bush and al-Maliki played down tensions over a U.S. plan for benchmarks toward reducing the violence. The two leaders said they were "committed to the partnership" and would work "in every way possible for a stable, democratic Iraq and for victory in the war on terror."

They outlined three goals: speeding up the training of Iraq's security forces; moving ahead with Iraqi control of its forces; and making the Iraqi government responsible for the country's security.

The Shiite leader had issued the declaration in a meeting Friday with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, after which the two issued a rare joint statement declaring the need to work together to set timelines to clamp off spiraling violence attributed to Shiite militias and death squads.

"I am a friend of the United States, but I am not America's man in Iraq," Hassan al-Sneid, a close al-Maliki aide quoted him as telling Khalilzad during the meeting.

The insider's account of the session was in sharp contrast to the joint al-Maliki-Khalilzad statement that was issued both by the American Embassy and al-Maliki's office late Friday night.

Al-Sneid said the prime minister demanded that his government be treated as an elected administration which enjoys international legitimacy and that U.S. forces in Iraq must coordinate better with his government.

The joint statement, however, appeared to signal that al-Maliki was backing down from his highly publicized squabble with the Bush administration and dropping his objections to a timeline proposed by Washington for bringing security to his war-ravaged nation.

The statement said the Iraqi leader reaffirmed his commitment to a "good and strong" relationship with the U.S., in what appeared to be an attempt to bring down the curtain down on a week of recriminations. The dispute has further tarnished President George W. Bush's bid to promote policy "adjustments" in Iraq with less than two weeks left before U.S. midterm congressional elections.

The vote has become a referendum on Bush policy in Iraq as U.S. deaths topped 2,800 and the war dragged into its 44th month.

The relative five-day calm in Baghdad in the five days since the end of the holy month of Ramadan ceded ground Saturday to a fresh outbreak of bloodletting.

One person was killed and 35 wounded when a rocket slammed into an outdoor market in Baghdad's turbulent southern neighborhood of Dora, according to police Lt. Mohammed al-Baghdadi. A second person was killed and nine wounded when a bomb went off in a minibus in an eastern Baghdad district, police Lt. Ali Hussein said.

In Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, police said they had found two bodies of apparent sectarian violence in the city's central al-Mu'allimeen district. A third body was pulled from the Diyala river earlier Saturday.

Al-Maliki's about-face came in a joint statement with the American Ambassador here in which the Iraqi leader reaffirmed his commitment to a "good and strong" relationship with the U.S., bringing the curtain down on a week of strained U.S.-Iraqi relations less than two weeks before U.S. congressional elections dominated by Iraq.

The Washington-Baghdad dispute not only undermined Bush's attempt to put a new face on Iraq strategy but was highly embarrassing to Khalilzad who announced the centerpiece of the administration at a news conference Tuesday and said al-Maliki was on board.

But over the next two days, al-Maliki declared he saw imposition of timelines as an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty and his government's authority. The timeline program, he said, was a product of U.S. electoral politics.

The White House later claimed al-Maliki's comments were taken out of context. But hours later, the Iraqi leader reissued the same complaint, unambiguously in an interview with British journalists.

The language in Friday's statement, issued in both English and Arabic, suggested a clear attempt to dampen further speculation about the growing rift in ties between the two governments.

"The government of Iraq is committed to a good and strong relationship with the U.S. government to work together toward a democratic, stable Iraq, and to confront the terrorist challenges in light of the strategic alliance between the two countries," it said. The "Iraqi government has made clear the issues that must be resolved with timelines."

Al-Sneid, however, said al-Maliki repeated to Khalilzad in their Friday meeting that he was reluctant to implement a timeline for tackling security issues, arguing that Iraq's security forces were not yet up to the task and requested that the United States do more to train and equip them.

Al-Maliki owed his job to backing from 30 lawmakers from the "Sadrist" movement of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for much of the sectarian violence sweeping Iraq since a February attack against a major Shiite shrine.

Washington has in recent weeks stepped up pressure on al-Maliki to crack down on the militias and their affiliated death squads, but al-Maliki, who came to office in May, has yet to take concrete action despite repeated assertion that he would disband them.

The U.S. military, meanwhile announced Saturday the death of a U.S. Marine in the restive Anbar province west of Baghdad, raising to 98 the number of U.S. forces killed in Iraq so far in October, already the fourth deadliest month since the Iraq war began in March 2003. The Marine died Friday from "injuries sustained due to enemy action."

The death toll among U.S. forces in Iraq now stands at least 2,811 since the beginning of the conflict, according to an Associated Press count.