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Iraqis divided on assessments

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- From the halls of parliament to the bomb-blasted city streets, Iraqis appeared divided yesterday over whether reports presented to U.S. lawmakers on the country's political and military situation were fair, biased or a waste of breath.

The reactions to the testimony by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker offered a window into the fissures that slice through Iraqi society.

Representatives of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government welcomed the assessments, which emphasized that more time is needed to ensure political progress and solidify military gains.

Al-Maliki's political foes, including Sunni Muslim legislators and Shiite Muslims loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, derided the assessments as soft on the Iraqi government and designed to quench President Bush's thirst for good news.

A handful of Iraqis interviewed reflected mixed emotions toward the U.S. presence: that it is an unwelcome force but one that is preventing chaos in many parts of the country.

"The Americans are and will remain occupiers and hated," said Abu Jabir, a receptionist at a Baghdad hospital. He said the U.S. invasion in March 2003 had done a good thing in overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. But he said the occupation had planted the seeds of sectarianism and it was time for U.S. troops to become less visible.

"A quick American pullout is not good, as civil war may flare," he said. "I think they should stay, but avoid the streets. Yes, we want them, but only as a backup and cover for our security."

In his testimony before Congress yesterday, Petraeus suggested a gradual decrease in U.S. troops in the coming months to bring troop levels back to what they were before the buildup.

Petraeus told the Congress that the extra troops had improved security. Crocker said political progress also was being made, although more slowly than U.S. officials had expected.

Al-Maliki's government, which came in for a drubbing last month from Crocker and Bush, quickly defended the pace of political reconciliation.

"Our Cabinet and our parliament are transparent defenders of the interests of all Iraqis and not of the privileged few, as was the case in the previous regime," al-Maliki's national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, said in a statement. "That is why progress seems slow, as we work out the consensus needed to move forward in the interests of the whole country."

Members of the parliament bloc loyal to al-Sadr said they suspected the Petraeus and Crocker assessments were a ploy to cast al-Maliki in a favorable light and provide an excuse to keep American troops here.

"It didn't show the negative things on the ground, but it showed the positive things only. We are rejecting it completely," said Abdul Mehdi Muttari, a spokesman for the al-Sadr bloc in Najaf, a Shiite city south of Baghdad.

In Baghdad, a bomb at a busy intersection killed a civilian and injured five, police said.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military said 11 U.S. troops were injured when the vast base where the U.S. Army has its headquarters came under fire. A brief statement gave no other details of the incident at Camp Victory, near the Baghdad airport.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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