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Iraq's tougher stance toward US

The prime minister takes a hard line on the Haditha case - which may complicate US relations.

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The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was a contentious topic when Iyad Allawi became Iraq's interim prime minister in June 2004. But Mr. Allawi, appointed by the occupying power, resisted domestic pressure to conduct an Iraqi investigation.

Now, amid charges of violence by US troops against Iraqi civilians, including an alleged massacre in the Sunni village of Haditha, elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is showing no such reticence. A critic of the US occupation before taking office, he has charged that such violence by coalition forces is a "daily phenomenon" and "a terrible crime," and demanded that the US turn over to Iraqis information on the Haditha case.

Mr. Maliki's tough stance suggests a new assertion of sovereignty by the Iraqi government, something that actually works to the US's favor. But the allegations, coming as the new government tries to demonstrate control, are likely to complicate both US-Iraq relations and Maliki's task of leading the Iraqi people.

Already, some Sunni religious and political leaders, in particular, are criticizing Maliki, a Shiite, for not being strong enough with the Americans. If his response falls short in their eyes, political relations with the minority Sunni population, already fragile, could become more difficult - and anti-American sentiment could intensify.

"Maliki is being hammered by the Sunnis. He has to worry about the rising fortunes of people like [radical Shiite cleric Moqtada] al-Sadr. So he needs to be able to show some sovereignty," says Iraq expert Henri Barkey, a former State Department analyst now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "The trick for the US is to boost this guy, because there may not be another one after him."

A year ago, a minority of members in Iraq's interim national assembly sought a timetable for US troop withdrawal. In the new parliament, Mr. Sadr's supporters are even stronger. That, coupled with the parliamentary presence of a Sunni bloc, has added to pressure for a US withdrawal.

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