BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, challenged by parliament Thursday to explain the lapses that led to a recent series of devastating car bombings, distanced himself from his interior minister and blamed the security gaps on "political infighting."
Making a rare appearance before lawmakers, Maliki defended the government's security agencies, but he stopped short when it came to Interior Minister Jawad al Bolani, a Maliki rival.
The prime minister told lawmakers that if they wanted to take a vote of no confidence in Bolani, "it's your business, not mine," according to Hadi al Ameri, a member of the security and defense committee.
Maliki already has removed the military officer in charge of security for Baghdad.
The special session was held in the aftermath of bombings Tuesday that killed 127 people and wounded more than 400. Maliki's appearance meant that he was unable to meet Thursday with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who'd arrived to show his support for the beleaguered government.
Gates met with President Jalal Talabani, Iraq's two vice presidents and its defense minister, and he questioned whether Iraq's counter-terrorism efforts were sufficient, according to Naseer al Ani, a top Talabani aide.
On Thursday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for al Qaida in Iraq and related extremists, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombings in a Web posting.
U.S. military commanders and top Iraqi officials have warned of increased violence in the run-up to national elections scheduled for early March.
Senior American officials reaffirmed that the Obama administration plans to remove all but 50,000 non-combat troops from Iraq by next August, despite a nearly two-month delay in the elections and Iraq's unsettled security environment.
Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters traveling with Gates that "we are on track" with the withdrawal, news agencies reported.
American Ambassador Chris Hill told McClatchy this week that the delay in elections caused by political wrangling wouldn't affect U.S. plans.
"We could handle a month delay. We couldn't handle a six-month delay," Hill said.
Gates had been expected to discuss with Maliki the transfer to Iraq's government of equipment that the American military will leave behind, and to press for a resolution of a dispute between Iraq's ethnic Arabs and Kurds over a swath of territory, including oil-rich Kirkuk.
The lawmakers said the special parliament session wasn't antagonistic, and that Maliki promised to make senior security officials and documents available.
"It was a normal, regular, boring and long session, and it didn't bring anything new," said Omar Abdulsatar, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker. Maliki's "answers were general and not convincing," he said. "We are running in an empty circle."
(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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