BAGHDAD, Iraq—Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continued his open dispute with American officials Thursday, blaming the United States-led coalition for Iraq's chaos and faulting its military strategy.
His sharp comments, in an interview with Reuters, came as the White House and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to play down the idea of a growing rift between the United States and the Iraq government.
Rumsfeld urged critics of administration policy "to just back off" and "relax."
According to a partial transcript of the interview distributed by Reuters, al-Maliki said he thought that Iraqi troops, left to their own devices, could re-establish order in Iraq in six months, not the 12 to 18 months that top U.S. commander Gen. William Casey had predicted Tuesday.
Al-Maliki offered a different set of priorities for fighting violence than U.S. officials, who've said the greatest threat to Iraq comes from death squads aligned with Shiite Muslim militias. In recounting a meeting with the head of one of those militias, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Maliki said he and al-Sadr agreed "that the efforts for all political groups should be focused on the most dangerous challenge, which is al-Qaida and the Saddam Baathists." Both those groups are made up primarily of Sunni Muslims.
Al-Maliki also said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was "not accurate" when he said Tuesday that the Iraqi government had agreed to a timetable for dealing with Iraq's problems.
The interview came as Bush administration officials in Washington continued to try to explain their position on setting "benchmarks" for Iraqi government actions. With just days to go before the midterm congressional election, Democrats and some Republicans have suggested that the U.S. begin withdrawing troops if the Iraqi government doesn't meet goals on time.
Rumsfeld said Thursday that there'd be no set dates for Iraqi leaders to meet nor any penalties imposed if they failed to meet goals.
He also said U.S. officials planned to increase spending on Iraq's army and police, but didn't say how much. The $70 billion in war spending that lawmakers tacked on to the 2007 defense-spending bill includes $1.7 billion to train and equip Iraq's security forces.
In Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi forces set up roadblocks Thursday and launched round-the-clock aerial surveillance of Baghdad as their search for an American soldier who may have been kidnapped entered its third day.
"We're using all assets in our arsenal to find this American soldier, and the government of Iraq is doing everything that it can also at every level," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. "Make no mistake: We will not stop looking for our service member."
The search was so intense, Caldwell said, that military officials think it may have contributed to a sudden drop in the level of violence in the city, which had reached record highs in recent weeks. Caldwell said the violence had declined the last two days, though he cautioned that the reduction also might be the result of the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
He declined to provide details of the search for the soldier, who's been described as an American of Iraqi descent. Family members told U.S. officials that the soldier, who was a translator, came to visit them in central Baghdad. Shortly after he arrived, three carloads of masked gunman stormed the house and took him away in handcuffs, family members said.
Baghdad residents reported that parts of Sadr City, a slum stronghold of Shiite militias and death squads, were blockaded. For much of the day every entrance but one also was blocked into the central district, where the missing soldiers' family lived.
Violence continued elsewhere. The U.S. military announced Thursday that four Marines and a sailor had been killed in combat Wednesday, raising to 96 the number of American deaths in Iraq so far in October. All but four were killed in action, making the month's combat toll the worst for U.S. troops in two years.
(McClatchy correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this story from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.