Key Iraqi leaders deliver setbacks to U.S.

The Bush administration’s Iraq policy suffered two major setbacks Friday when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly rejected key U.S. terms for an ongoing military presence and anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a new militia offensive against U.S. forces.

During a visit to Jordan, Maliki said negotiations over initial U.S. proposals for bilateral political and military agreements had “reached a dead end.” While he said talks would continue, his comments fueled doubts that the pacts could be reached this year, before the Dec. 31 expiration of a United Nations mandate sanctioning the U.S. role in Iraq.

The moves by two of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders underscore how the presence of U.S. troops has become a central issue for Iraqi politicians as they position themselves for provincial elections later this year. Iraqis across the political spectrum have grown intolerant of the U.S. presence, but the dominant Shiite parties — including Maliki’s Dawa party — are especially fearful of an electoral challenge from new, grass-roots groups.

Editor’s Comment — Here’s a definition of victory in Iraq that President Bush might want to consider: that Iraq has a government strong enough to defy the US. Think of it as the new Iraq’s coming of age.

The Bush administration thought it could strong-arm its client in Baghdad into an agreement, but as happens so often, the strong party mistook its counterpart’s weakness for stupidity.

Conducting the negotiations in secret has been utterly self-serving from the administration’s point of view and as soon as it became apparent to the Iraqis that it was to no advantage of theirs to keep the terms secret, they started spilling the beans. The effect has been that when Iraqi lawmakers come out and say the Americans want 58 permanent bases and Bush says this is “erroneous”, the whole world knows who’s lying.

Presumably the administration had two motives for wanting to maintain the secrecy. Firstly, they wanted to be able to cast the final agreement as an expression of mutual interest rather than it being seen as Iraq acceding to US demands. Secondly, if the US had to make concessions, they didn’t want to be seen as having done so.

The Americans’ underlying assumption is that the Iraqis would not dare say we can manage without you. That assumption is now looking like a gamble that could backfire spectacularly on Bush and the GOP. Imagine this as an October surprise: the Iraqi government asks the US to start organizing an orderly withdrawal of its forces. In that event, McCain might as well withdraw from the presidential race.

Iraqi cleric Sadr to demobilize most of his militia

Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr appeared to move Friday toward reorganizing his Mahdi Army militia and shifting much of the movement’s focus toward peaceful social activities, though he said its military wing would reserve the right to attack U.S. forces.

Sadr, in a statement read after Friday prayers in his stronghold of Kufa, said a select number of Mahdi Army cadres would be allowed to bear arms and use them only with authorization.

His orders, read by a deputy, said the militia’s guns and mortars “will be directed only toward the occupiers and no one else. . . . Any further targets will not be allowed.”

Taliban free 1,200 in attack on Afghan prison

In a brazen attack, Taliban fighters assaulted the main prison in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Friday night, blowing up the mud walls, killing 15 guards and freeing around 1,200 inmates. Among the escapees were about 350 Taliban members, including commanders, would-be suicide bombers and assassins, said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council and a brother of President Hamid Karzai.

“It is very dangerous for security. They are the most experienced killers and they all managed to escape,” he said by telephone from Kandahar.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said that the attack was carried out by 30 insurgents on motorbikes and two suicide bombers, and that they had freed about 400 Taliban members, The Associated Press reported.

Mammoth anti-Musharraf rally in Islamabad

Hundreds of thousands of anti-Musharraf marchers converged on federal capital early Saturday demanding reinstatement of the deposed judges in no time. The main long march rally led by lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan entered the Parade Ground at about 2:15 am while PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif reached the venue at 2:35 am.

As the lawyer and political leaders appeared on the stage, the participants of the long march cried “go Musharraf go” at the top of their voice. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif began his speech at 3:00 am by paying glowing tributes to the participants of the march. He said this was the place where Musharraf claimed before a gathering in the wake of the Karachi killing that it was a demonstration of people’s power. He said those people were brought by paying money. He asked Musharraf to come and see the real demonstration of people’s power. He also asked Musharraf to listen to what the people were saying about him.

He said Musharraf had not accepted the decision the people delivered on Feb 18. He said now the people did not want only his ouster but his trial. He said Musharraf should remember the days when innocent girl students of Jamia Hafsa were demanding safe passage but he burnt them with fire bombs. He said now Musharraf cannot be given a safe passage.

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