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Khalilzad Downplays Washington-Baghdad Dispute

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq is downplaying reports of an apparent dispute between Washington and Baghdad. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington, where officials deny the United States is trying to tell the Iraqi government what to do.

The United States and Iraq appeared to be at odds last week, over when and how Iraq would make political reforms and quell rising sectarian violence.

U.S. officials had made statements that many Iraqis had interpreted as Washington's efforts to exert pressure on the Iraqi government. In response, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said no outside power can decide his government's agenda.

Efforts by Washington and Baghdad to mend relations and show a united face to the world culminated in a joint statement Saturday by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki. Both sides agreed to speed up the training of Iraqi forces, in order to accelerate Iraq's ability to take over responsibility for its own security.

Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad downplayed the dispute, and told CNN's Late Edition it is caused by a misunderstanding.

"I think that was not a real issue," he said. "That was a problem in how what I said was interpreted or translated to him, and how it was played by some of the media here. What he understood, as it was explained to him, was that I had determined what issues and by when the Iraqis had to decide."

Khalilzad stressed that the United States is not trying to tell Iraq what to do.

"What I had in fact said, as you played it, was, that the Iraqis had decided on some goals and timelines for achieving those goals, not that I had determined those and was announcing them for the prime minister to implement," he said.

On Saturday, President Bush reaffirmed his support for Prime Minister Maliki. This viewpoint was echoed on CNN by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Senator Richard Lugar.

"Well, he [Maliki] is the prime minister," he said. "I think, we want to stay away from judgments about whether the prime minister is competent, or not. He is the prime minister. And, we are going to take for granted what he is saying, that he will make those decisions, with his people."

Meanwhile, the U.S. military says coalition forces have killed 17 militants near the town of Balad, north of Baghdad. Police in the Iraqi capital also found the bodies of 25 people, who had been tortured and killed by sectarian death squads, and gunmen in Baghdad killed two policemen.

Near the southern city of Basra, Iraqi police say gunmen ambushed a minibus carrying police translators and trainers from a police academy, killing 17 people.

The U.S. ambassador acknowledged that, in terms of violence, Baghdad has gone through what he characterized as "a very, very difficult period" in recent months. But he added there have been many positive developments in other parts of Iraq, including increases in agricultural production and electricity.