Iraq's top diplomat said today that more progress had been made in bringing security to the country than in advancing the tumultuous political situation, and cautioned against expecting "magical solutions" from the upcoming status report to U.S. Congress.
"The whole world is waiting anxiously to see what this report will indicate," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters. "I personally believe that this report would not provide any magical solutions or provide any instant answers to the difficulties and challenges we are going through."
Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack during combat operations in Iraq's eastern Diyala province, the U.S. command announced. The Task Force Lightning soldier was killed Wednesday by the explosion next to his vehicle, the military said in a statement. The soldier's name was being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The day after he said he was taking his Mahdi Army out of action for up to six months to overhaul the militia, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to rescind the order unless the Iraqi government stops detaining his followers in Karbala and elsewhere within the next 48 hours, Karbala deputy Gov. Jawad al-Hasnawi said.
Al-Hasnawi said the warning was a response to raids by U.S. forces and Iraqi forces in the Karbala area on Sadr offices, in which six people were killed and 30 detained.
"These campaigns made Muqtada give his warning to the government," al-Hasnawi said.
And an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad said the six-month hiatus could end any time necessary.
"The freezing of Mahdi army would end if something happened and required that," Abu Firas al-Mutairi told The AP.
Al-Sadr's announcement of the freeze appeared aimed at distancing himself from suspected Iranian-backed Mahdi factions he can no longer control. It also sought to deflect criticism for his followers' perceived role in this week's fighting in Karbala that aborted a Shiite religious festival and claimed more than 50 lives.
Thousands of pilgrims fled in terror as fighting erupted Tuesday between Mahdi Army members and security forces linked with the rival Shiite Badr militia.
Early Thursday in the southeastern city of Nasiriyah about 20 gunmen attacked a Badr headquarters. The attack caused no injuries, but the building was partially burned, according to a Nasiriyah police officer speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
It was not clear whether Mahdi Army was behind the attack, but the police officer said it was a reaction after the arrival of some victims including dead and wounded people of Karbala events."
Despite the recent flare up of violence in Karbala, Zebari, the foreign minister, said ahead of the upcoming Petraeus report that progress was being made.
Petraeus and Crocker are due in Washington to report to Congress by mid September on advances in Iraq since the introduction of 30,000 more American troops earlier this year. The report is expected to decide the future of the American mission in Iraq.
"It's true there has been a great deal of progress on the military-security side and it wasn't matched by the same momentum on the political, but recently we entered a new phase by the signing of the new document and the agreement of the leaders to pass some of the controversial legislation," Zebari said in reference to Sunday's meeting by top government leaders who said they had found common ground on some main issues standing in the way of reconciliation.
The leaders said they agreed on some issues that the U.S. has set as benchmarks for progress, among them holding provincial elections, releasing prisoners held without charge, and changing the law preventing many former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from holding government jobs and elected office.
"I am hopeful that come September 11 or 12 you will see more political progress," Zebari said without elaborating.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's office gave the first details of the release of prisoners, saying the first batch would be set free on Sunday.
"The first batch consists of fifty detainees a week, to be expanded to reach 350 a week in Baghdad and other provinces," he said without specifying the time frame for the expansion.
As another example of positive steps, Zebari said a Saudi Foreign Ministry technical delegation visited Baghdad this week to look for property to reopen their country's mission in Baghdad. The mission has been closed since 1990 when Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait. He added that the United Arab Emirates sent a similar delegation earlier.
He also expanded on Sunday's announcement of the hope for a long-term partnership with multinational forces currently in Iraq, saying it would free those forces from waiting for a U.N. Security Council decision to renew their stay in Iraq.
Asked if Iraq will allow multination forces to set up permanent bases in the future, Zebari said "it is still early to talk about setting up bases but there will be presence of these forces at smaller sizes and different missions and there will be security cooperation because the Iraqi preparedness are not up to what is desired."
No 'magical solutions,' says Iraq diplomat