BAGHDAD, Iraq—A top-ranked U.S. military officer in Iraq said Wednesday that the United States thought that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki was running out of time to prevent Iraq from dissolving into outright civil war.
"We have to fix this militia issue. We can't have armed militias competing with Iraq's security forces. But I have to trust the prime minister to decide when it is that we do that," said Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-highest-ranking American military official in Baghdad.
Chiarelli's comments to a gathering of reporters were a part of a growing chorus of concerns from U.S. political and military leaders about the Iraqi government's ability and willingness to tackle corruption and militia-run death squads. They suggest that top American leaders are growing frustrated with the pace of reforms and may even be starting to argue for eventual U.S. withdrawal.
Throughout the month, senior military officials—almost always speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject—have expressed frustration with the government, saying corruption and rogue militias backed by rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr are rampant. They've complained of ministers using their offices to fill the coffers of their political parties and of government workers using their jobs to attack rival sects. They said the Iraqi government turned a blind eye, embracing a sectarian winner-take-all approach to governance.
American and some Iraqi leaders quietly complain that Maliki isn't willing to make difficult decisions because he's politically beholden to the followers of Sadr, who backed his premiership. He often has blocked U.S. military officials from entering Shiite militia areas such as the Baghdad slum of Sadr City to make arrests.
"There's a political piece to this to see if they deal with these guys," a senior military official said earlier this month, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is corruption and problems in some of these ministries, but it's got to be dealt with and it ought to be dealt with by the prime minister and the folks that are inside this government. I think the time is short for them to deal with that over time, because this can't go on like that."
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a top American military spokesman, said Wednesday that murders and executions were now the top reasons for civilian deaths in Baghdad. He said it was widely believed that Shiite militias and Sunni Muslim insurgency groups were doing the killing.
"When we say murders and executions, we're assuming murders and executions are in fact sectarian violence that is occurring within the city," Caldwell said.
In a WorldPublicOpinion.org poll conducted Sept. 1-4 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 77 percent of Iraqi respondents, including 100 percent of Sunnis polled, said they'd prefer a strong government that would get rid of militias.
The minority Sunnis, whom U.S. officials want to remain in the political process, threatened last week to leave the government if Maliki doesn't address the problem of the militias.
Hassan Sineid, a Shiite assemblyman and fellow member of Maliki's Dawa Party, said security forces had performed badly, and he called for the defense and interior ministers to resign. He said the prime minister soon would present a resolution before parliament calling for the disbanding of militias.
Recently, Maliki publicly denounced an attack in Sadr City that killed 34 people last week. It was one of the few occasions he's condemned violence in Iraq at a time when an average of 100 people are killed in the country each day.
American officials continue to support Maliki because he's the country's elected leader.
In other developments, the U.S. military said eight people, including four women, were killed early Wednesday in a raid in Baqouba that targeted a terrorist with ties to the group al Qaida in Iraq. Three other people, including two whom the military said were tied to terrorist activity, were wounded.
During the raid, gunfire came from the building that soldiers were targeting and from throughout the neighborhood. The military called in an air attack.
Weapons and a global positioning system were found in the targeted building. American military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said the deaths of the women came after those in the building were warned repeatedly to stop firing.
(McClatchy special correspondent Zaineb Obeid and Mark Brunswick of the Minneapolis Star Tribune contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.