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Mideast edition, Wednesday, August 22, 2007

WASHINGTON — A top senate Democrat said Monday that Iraqi lawmakers need to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with a less partisan, more competent leader who can move the country closer to stability.

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the current Iraqi government is “nonfunctional and cannot produce a political settlement” because of its close ties to religious leaders.

“I hope that the Iraqi assembly, when it reconvenes in a few weeks, will vote the al-Maliki government out of office, and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister,” he said in a conference call with reporters Monday.

Levin, who spent two days in Iraq last week, said that the “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq over the last few months has brought more security to key areas of the country.

“But the stated purpose of the surge was to make sure Iraqi leaders would have breathing room to reach political settlement,” he said. “In that regard, [Iraqi politicians] have totally and utterly failed.”

Al-Maliki has come under increased criticism from both U.S. and Iraqi officials in recent months.

In a joint statement with Levin, committee ranking member Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said he was not optimistic about the prospect of political progress and urged the people of Iraq to “judge the government’s record and determine what actions should be taken.”

The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported that Army Chief of Staff George Casey, who spent several days last week in Iraq, was surprised by the comments he heard from U.S. officers.

“I heard more people talk about Maliki not making it through his full term in two days than I had heard in all of my previous time here,” he told the newspaper. “There’s a frustration with his inability to be a reconciliation leader, and a fear that the momentum generated by the surge could just be frittered away.”

Levin stopped short of advocating any U.S. action to push al-Maliki from power, saying the decision is for Iraqi lawmakers to make.

But he did say that he believes military leaders should begin major drawdowns of U.S. forces in the next four months, to force Iraqi politicians to work harder toward reaching a compromise on issues such as power-sharing and distribution of revenue from oil.

“There is no military solution to the sectarian strife in Iraq; the only hope of ending that violence is political compromise,” Levin said. “But the political leaders continue to ignore the desperate situation their people find themselves in.”

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