BAGHDAD — The U.S. military said Tuesday that a Marine was killed in fighting west of the capital, bringing the American death toll for July to at least 73 — still the lowest in eight months.
An Apache helicopter also went down Tuesday after coming under fire in a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad, but both crew members were safely evacuated, the military said.
President Bush’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, acknowledged that slow progress in Iraq is hurting America’s credibility and emboldening Iran’s regional ambitions.
While steady progress has been made on the military front, Iraq’s political factions have made only limited headway in achieving reconciliation, said Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, who has been nominated to replace U.S. Gen. Peter Pace as the nation’s top military officer.
Iraq’s parliament shrugged off U.S. criticism and adjourned for a month, as key lawmakers declared there was no point waiting any longer for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to deliver Washington-demanded benchmark legislation for their vote.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was fighting Thursday to save the Shiite-dominated government from possible collapse, wheedling key Sunni Arab politicians to set aside threats to quit the Cabinet and counseling the prime minister to “seriously consider” their demands.
Talabani also warned of “negative consequences” if the six Cabinet ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front were to leave al-Maliki’s 14-month-old government. He did not elaborate, but the withdrawal of the Accordance Front’s ministers could erase the government’s “national unity” status and diminish its legitimacy.
A 'real civil war'
Meanwhile, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish region warned Tuesday of a “real civil war” if the central government does not implement a constitutional clause on the future of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city claimed by the Kurds.
Control over the city and the surrounding oil wealth is in dispute. Kurds are trying to annex the region. Iraq’s Arab majority and a Turkish minority that lives in Kirkuk oppose that move.
Massoud Barzani, speaking in an interview with U.S.-funded Alhurra television, complained that the Baghdad government was dragging its feet on holding a referendum that could put Kirkuk under control of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“There is procrastination (by the government) and if this issue is not resolved, as I said before, all options are open. ... Frankly I am not comfortable with the behavior and the policy of the federal government on Kirkuk and clause 140,” he said.
The constitutional clause calls for a referendum in Kirkuk to decide its future status by the end of the year. Before the vote, the clause says Kurds expelled from the city during Saddam Hussein’s rule must be allowed to return. A census would then be held to determine which ethnic group was a majority of the population.
Tens of thousands of Kurds have returned to the city since Saddam’s ouster in 2003, but a census has not been conducted.
“If clause 140 is not implemented, then there will be a real civil war,” Barzani said, promising to visit Baghdad shortly to discuss the matter with the central government.
“That issue must be completely resolved or, as I said, all options are open.”
Separately, officials said the Kurdish chief of staff of Iraq’s armed forces, Gen. Babaker B. Shawkat Zebari, had submitted his resignation to al-Maliki on Sunday but that the Iraqi leader rejected it.
Prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said Zebari had been frustrated by what he believed was excessive interference by the Shiite prime minister and the Sunni Arab defense minister.
Zebari could not be reached for comment, and it was not immediately clear whether he had agreed to stay on. His action, however, adds to the troubles of the embattled al-Maliki, who also holds the position of armed forces’ commander in chief.
Also Monday, a U.S. Marine was killed while conducting combat operations in the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad, the military said.
The attack raised to at least 73 the number of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq in July, the lowest number since November 2006, when at least 70 U.S. deaths were reported. The monthly toll topped 100 in April, May and June.
In all, at least 3,652 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
The No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, expressed cautious optimism last week about the downturn. He said casualties had increased as U.S. forces expanded operations into militant strongholds as part of a five-month-old security crackdown aimed at clamping off violence in Baghdad, but were going down as Americans gained control of the areas.
An unmanned U.S. drone also crashed late Monday while landing at an air base north of Baghdad, but it did not appear to be from hostile activity, the military said separately.
In scattered violence reported by police Tuesday, at least 11 people were killed or found dead nationwide, including three Iraqi police in a drive-by shooting and one soldier in a roadside bombing. A teacher also was shot to death while driving to work in a mainly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad.
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