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    Playing hardball in Iraq: did Bush throw Maliki a brushback pitch?

    On Monday at the White House press briefing, Press Secretary Dana Perino declined to answer when I asked her whether the White House would apologize for last Friday’s raid by U.S. forces in Iraq that reportedly killed a relative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

    The slain man, Ali Abdul Hussein al-Maliki, was described as the prime minister’s cousin in recent reports by McClatchy and the Washington Post. According to McClatchy, at the time of his death, the man was working as a security guard in a villa owned by the prime minister’s sister in Janaja, a town in Karbala Province. Responsibility for security in Karbala Province was supposedly handed over to the Iraqi government in October 2007, but Iraqi officials have claimed that last Friday’s raid was conducted without their knowledge or approval.

    Here is my exchange with Ms. Perino:

    Q U.S. forces in Iraq reportedly killed a relative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a raid last Friday on a villa belonging to the Prime Minister’s sister. The villa is in Karbala province, which is supposedly under full Iraqi control, and Iraqi officials said they were not informed about the raid in advance. Was that raid a mistake, and will you issue an apology?

    MS. PERINO: I think you’ll need to call MNFI [Multi-National Force, Iraq]. I don’t have any information on that.

    According to McClatchy, the U.S. military released a statement on Sunday that confirmed that coalition forces had shot and killed a man during what it described as an operation targeting “special groups” (a term it uses for Iranian-backed militant cells), and that the coalition forces learned only later that the man was a security guard. The U.S. statement continued: “Coalition forces deeply regret the loss of life and are conducting an investigation.”

    The June 27 raid occurred at a sensitive point in negotiations of a Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq that will define the terms under which U.S. forces will operate in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires in December 2008. Those negotiations, which began last January, have reportedly been deadlocked over disagreements concerning the extent of Iraqi sovereignty. Two weeks prior to the raid, on June 13, Prime Minister Maliki said:

    “We have reached an impasse because when we opened these negotiations we did not realize that the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty, and this is something we can never accept. We cannot allow US forces to have the right to jail Iraqis or assume, alone, the responsibility of fighting against terrorism.”

    That the U.S. would then proceed to unilaterally conduct a raid aimed at the prime minister’s family doesn’t bode well for the success of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations. And neither does the fact that the White House won’t apologize.

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