For second time, Maliki is agitated by criticism

BAGHDAD - For the second time in a week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on Sunday expressed agitation with U.S. politicians who say they are frustrated with his government's lack of political progress, this time targeting two prominent U.S. senators.

Maliki's comments came as a Kurdish militia spokesman said U.S. helicopters and fighter jets had mistakenly bombed two police stations near Qara Taba, a village 80 miles north of Baghdad in Diyala province. Four policemen were killed and eight others injured, according to the spokesman, Gen. Jabbar Yawr, who said the Kurdish officers had been brought to the area to help in U.S. efforts to pacify the province.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said the incident was under investigation. He said it hasn't been determined whether any police were killed. He said it did not appear any buildings were hit.

At a news conference in Baghdad, Maliki singled out Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Carl Levin of Michigan by name for criticism. Both senators last week called for Maliki to step down.

"There are officials in America and the American Congress who speak of Iraq as one of their villages," Maliki said. "They are Democrats who should respect democracy and its results."

Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has recently been the target for criticism by U.S. officials who blame him for the failure of the Shiite-dominated parliament to pass legislation that U.S. officials say would encourage reconciliation between rival Iraqi political blocs. On Sunday, however, Maliki joined other Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders in announcing that they have agreed on drafts of some of those laws -- a promising sign if the parliment follows through with action. But with almost half of the government's cabinet members having resigned or announced they won't attend meetings, it's unclear if any action will actually take place.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the performance of the Maliki government had been "extremely disappointing." President Bush added to the criticism when he acknowledged that there is "a certain level of frustration" with Iraq's leaders, though he later said he still supports the prime minister. An assessment of developments in Iraq by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies predicted that Maliki's government would become even weaker over the next year.

Maliki responded to those comments by saying that his country would find other allies if the U.S. were not willing to back the Iraqi government. His comments directed at Clinton and Levin on Sunday show that rather than admit any political shortcomings, Maliki intends to continue fighting criticism with criticism.

Despite the bitter words, Crocker's public affairs counselor, Phil Reeker, said Sunday that Bush and Crocker have made it clear that they whole-heartedly support Maliki, though they expect to see progress. He dismissed the exchanges between Maliki and U.S. officials as "he said, she said stuff," adding that "there are far more fundamental issues to be worked on."

Asked whether Maliki misunderstood Bush and Crocker's comments from last week, Reeker said: "You'd have to ask him. He and the ambassador have a good relationship. They meet almost every day. We need to move on; it's not important."

Maliki has lashed out at U.S. critics in the past. Last year, he and then U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad exchanged bitter words over the deaths of Iraqi civilians and whether he had agreed to a timetable to achieve certain benchmarks.

The comments in recent days show that Maliki's disagreement with the United States is not simply a personality clash.

On Sunday he also zeroed in on the U.S. military, saying it had made "big mistakes" when, according to the military, it killed 18 insurgents in a northern Baghdad neighborhood on Friday. Residents said many of the dead were civilians.

"The terrorist himself should be targeted, not his family," Maliki said.

Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, said that the military takes precautions to avoid collateral damage in its operations and that reports of civilian casualties are often fabricated.

"If and when we have an incident where innocent people are involved and injured, we will always be the first to come out with that," he said.

Maliki also warned Sunday that "some journalists have crossed the line" by reporting negative comments made about Iraq's political troubles.

"We accept criticism, but we do not accept slander, because it targets the political process, not the person," he said, adding that journalists could be sued. Maliki did not say whether his remarks were aimed at Iraqi or foreign journalists.