BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki criticized neighboring countries Tuesday as not doing enough to help Iraq root out militancy and pledged to continue his campaign against rogue Shiite Muslim militias.
Speaking at a summit of Arab and neighboring countries in Kuwait, Maliki also asked that his country's debt to Arab nations be waived and that Iraq no longer be required to pay war reparations to Kuwait, which were levied against Saddam Hussein for his 1990 invasion of that country.
Maliki's pleas underscored a message the U.S. also has been repeating: that it's up to all Arab countries to bolster Iraq economically and politically.
His appearance at an Arab summit primarily of Sunni Muslim nations enhanced his standing at a time that many were questioning his competence over his decision to move against the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Maliki renewed his pledge to eliminate militias Tuesday, just days after Sadr threatened to stage a rebellion against the U.S. and the Iraqi government if Iraqi security forces didn't break off their offensive.
Sadr has remained quiet in the days since his threat, while Maliki's appearance in Kuwait positioned him as the tough leader of an Arab nation that's willing to face down internal opposition, rather than as the ineffectual leader of a Shiite government beholden to armed groups.
The Arab leaders partly rewarded his position by announcing that their next summit would be in Baghdad.
Mahdi Army members are anxiously awaiting orders from Sadr, who's thought to be in Iran.
Sheik Salah al Obaidi, top spokesman for Sadr in Najaf, said Iraqi politicians couldn't meet the demands that the cleric had made in order to stand down his militia, including the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"We've studied the response in Iraq after Sadr's last statement," Obaidi said. "We are ready for all the possibilities, the possibility of a wide military opposition to the government being one of the most prominent."
Pockets of fighting continued between the U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces and Mahdi militiamen, especially in the cleric's stronghold of Baghdad's Sadr City district.
Fighting also spread into the New Baghdad neighborhood, where Iraqi security forces killed at least 12 militants and seized weapons in the last few days. Five people were killed and eight were wounded Tuesday when four mortar rounds hit New Baghdad.
"The ones who suffer the most are the Iraqi people," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, the U.S. military spokesman for Baghdad operations. "We're not looking for a fight; it's almost like (the militants) are. As far as any political dialogue, that's going to have to occur at levels above us."
Hussein al Rubaie, 35, of Sadr City said he thought that the "final battle was coming" and "we will fight till the end if we have to." But he admitted that he and other residents of the city weren't storing rations or preparing for a possible curfew.
"No one is thinking about storing food, and we hope we don't need to," he said.
Mohammed al Darraji of Sadr City is a former Sadrist who's now bitter about the Mahdi Army for the suffering it's caused residents. He has to take side streets to avoid the explosives it plants around his neighborhood, he said.
"We have to pay the price to get rid of the Mahdi Army even if it costs the lives of innocent people," Darraji said. "I told my friends a few days ago that I'm ready to die with my whole family if it would end the suffering of the innocent people in Sadr City."
Maliki made veiled references to Sadr in his comments during the summit and asked countries to join him in opposing terrorism, saying that not only Iraq should pay the price of militancy. Neighboring countries' hesitation to take a strong stance against terrorism has harmed the security and stability of Iraq, the prime minister said.
Saudi Arabia and Syria are among the countries that have been criticized for allowing militants to cross their borders into Iraq.
"We call on all the neighboring countries to strengthen their security procedures and to stop terrorists from sneaking into our lands," Maliki said.
He said that by releasing Iraq from war reparations and debt, Arab leaders would help speed his country's reconstruction.
(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)