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Iraqi leader lashes out against Western critics

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out Sunday at U.S. and French politicians who have called on him to step down and accused U.S. forces of committing "big mistakes" in killing and detaining civilians in the hunt for insurgents.

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out Sunday at U.S. and French politicians who have called on him to step down and accused U.S. forces of committing "big mistakes" in killing and detaining civilians in the hunt for insurgents.

It was the second outburst from the embattled leader in recent days as he has come under fire from an array of allies and adversaries who accuse him of failing to unite his Cabinet and put key laws and programs in place. On Sunday, he drew fresh criticism from two influential congressional Republicans.

Al-Maliki trained his angriest words on Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and her upper house colleague and fellow Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan.

At a hastily called news conference after meeting with other Iraqi leaders, al-Maliki dismissed the calls for him to step down as "ugly interference" in Iraq's domestic affairs.

"There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin," he told reporters. "They should come to their senses."

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Al-Maliki also had harsh words for French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who earlier this month paid the first official visit by a senior official from Paris since the March 2003 start of the war that France and most European countries opposed.

In an interview posted this weekend on Newsweek magazine's Web site, Kouchner also suggested al-Maliki step aside and let Iraqis find a more unifying leader. Kouchner offered praise for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite Muslim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, whom the Frenchman described as "impressive."

Al-Maliki described the foreign minister's suggestion that he resign as a position that "cannot in any way be called diplomacy."

On Sunday night, Iraq's top five political leaders announced an agreement to release thousands of prisoners being held without charge and to reform the law that has kept thousands of members of Saddam Hussein's political party out of government jobs.

The agreement was publicized after several days of meetings among al-Maliki and Mehdi, both Shiites; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni; and Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.

The announcement clears the way for the fractious Iraqi government to ease restrictions on former Baath Party members, one of the political initiatives President Bush considers key to Iraq's success. The agreement, reached not quite two weeks before Bush is to receive a progress report on the situation in Iraq, could still face a stiff battle in Iraq's divided parliament.

Although details of the proposed revisions to the de-Baathification law were unclear late Sunday, advisers to the political leaders said the changes would allow former members of Saddam's party to hold civil service jobs unless they had been high-level leaders or were accused of committing a specific crime. The new law would replace Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification with a new committee dedicated to prosecuting former party members accused of crimes.

"The new law says that it is not a crime to have been in the Baath Party," an adviser to Hashimi said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. "De-Baathification is canceled."

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Reforming the law has long been considered a top priority of the Iraqi government, but the political parties have disagreed on the best course of action. Many Shiites and Kurds have objected to allowing Sunni ex-Baathists into jobs related to national security and are nervous that they could regain dominance in the government.

In March, Maliki and then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced a revised de-Baathification law, but the plan disintegrated within 24 hours after religious Shiites opposed key elements of the proposal.

Hiwa Osman, an adviser to Talabani, said all five parties in the meeting agreed to the draft law.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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