As a gunbattle raged south of Baghdad Saturday, two key U.S. senators told Iraqi leaders that American patience was growing thin and they needed to urgently overcome their stalemate and form a national unity government.
Seven people died and 24 were wounded in the clash between forces of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia and Sunni insurgents near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of the capital, according to police and doctors.
The delegation led by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who supported the invasion of Iraq, was the second group of top American politicians in less than a week to journey to Baghdad to pressure Iraqi leaders to speed the process of forming a government.
“I come away with the impression that the Iraqi leaders understand the sense of urgency we have conveyed to them. We all know the polls show declining support among the American people,” McCain said at a news conference. “So I am guardedly optimistic that this will happen within weeks.”
Wisconsin Democrat and war opponent Sen. Russell Feingold joined McCain in pressing for the quick formation of a government, but he also declared his concern that the continued presence of American forces was prolonging the conflict.
“It’s the reality of a situation like this that when you have a large troop presence that it has the tendency to fuel the insurgency because they can make the incorrect and unfair claim that somehow the United States is here to occupy this country, which of course is not true,” Feingold said.
Senators meet Iraqi president
Before speaking with reporters in the heavily fortified Green Zone, the American politicians met with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who has formed a coalition of with Sunni and secular politicians against a second term for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
The move deepened the stalemate more than three months after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
The U.S. politicians met separately with Talabani and al-Jaafari as well as the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey.
Earlier Saturday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told assembled Iraqi athletes assembled at a community sports center that the country was at a “defining moment.”
“As I speak Iraqi leaders are struggling to form a government of national unity. This is a critical step for the future of Iraq, it’s a defining moment,” Khalilzad said.
The main challenge, the U.S. envoy said, was “to overcome the strife that threatens to rip apart Iraq.”
An earlier call for results
On Tuesday, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the panel, delivered the same tough message to Talabani and al-Jaafari.
They too warned that Americans were running out of patience and could force U.S. leaders to decrease troop strength if the delays in forming a government continued.
In other violence Saturday, a female teacher was killed by Iraqi soldiers as she drove past their convoy, police said.
Gunmen also killed a Sunni mosque preachers when he stopped to have his car repaired in west Baghdad.
Earlier, a bomb exploded in a traffic police hut in north Baghdad, killing four civilians. Five people, including a traffic policeman, were wounded in the attack near the Iraqi Finance Ministry, police said.
Three people in a car were killed by gunmen in the northern city of Mosul and two were wounded, one critically police said.
In Balabroz, 55 miles northeast of Baghdad, two men were killed and three wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near a police checkpoint, authorities said.
Iraqi police also found two more bodies, with their hands and legs tied and shots to the head. One was in southeastern Baghdad; the second was floating in the Tigris River, 55 miles south of the capital.
On Friday, at least 51 other people were reported to have died in violence, including two U.S. soldiers killed in western Anbar province.
An optimistic report
Perhaps anticipating the meeting with the American delegation, Talabani on Friday issued a highly optimistic report on progress toward hammering out the shape of a new unity government.
He said the government could be in place for parliamentary approval by the end of the month, though he acknowledged “I am usually a very optimistic person.” He spoke to reporters after a fifth round of multiparty talks among the country’s polarized political factions.
Khalilzad brokered the sessions, with the Bush administration applying extreme pressure on Iraqi politicians to form a government. Washington hopes to begin withdrawing troops this summer, banking on a decrease in violence once a national unity government is in place.
A less optimistic al-Jaafari has said a Cabinet list could be ready by the end of April, a full month beyond the Talabani estimate.