Iraqi leader tells aides U.S. benchmark deadline is June 30 or his ouster possible

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fears the Americans will torpedo his government if parliament does not pass a law to fairly divvy up the country's oil wealth among Iraqis by the end of June, close associates of the leader told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The legislature has not even taken up the draft measure, which is only one of several U.S. benchmarks that are seen by al-Maliki as key to continued American support, a crucial need for the survival of his troubled administration.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey denied the administration would withdraw support. "The notion that we have in any way shape or form threatened to bring down his government over this law is simply untrue," he said in Washington.

Aside from the oil law, the associates said, American officials have told the hardline Shiite Muslim prime minister that they want an Iraqi government in place by year's end acceptable to the country's Sunni Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

"They have said it must be secular and inclusive," one al-Maliki associate said.

To that end, al-Maliki made an unannounced visit Tuesday to Ramadi, the Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold, to meet with tribal leaders, the provincial governor and security chiefs in a bid to signal his willingness for reconciliation to end the bitter sectarian war that has riven Iraq for more than a year.

Compounding al-Maliki's fears about a withdrawal of American support were visits to Saudi Arabia by two key political figures in an admitted bid to win support for a major Iraqi political realignment. Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally and oil supplier.

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite Muslim, flew to the Saudi capital Tuesday, a day after the arrival there of Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

"Allawi is there to enlist support for a new political front that rises above sectarian structures now in place," the former prime minister's spokesman, Izzat al-Shahbandar, told the AP.

Barzani spokesman Abdul-Khaleq Zanganah said the two Iraqis met in Kurdistan before the trip for talks on forming a "national front to take over for the political bloc now supporting al-Maliki."

It appears certain the United States was informed about the Allawi and Barzani opening to the Saudis, who are deeply concerned that al-Maliki could become a puppet of Iran, the Shiite theocracy on Iraq's eastern border they view as a threat to the region's stability.

Washington has been reported working more closely with Sunni Arab governments to encourage them to take a greater role in Iraq, particularly in reining in the Sunni insurgency that has killed thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites.

The Bush administration is believed to be trying to win support for its operations in Iraq among Arab neighbors by assuring a greater future role for the Sunni minority that ran the country until the U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein four years ago.

One al-Maliki confidant said the Americans had voiced displeasure with the prime minister's government even though he has managed so far to blunt major resistance from the Mahdi Army militia to the joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation in Baghdad. The Shiite militia is loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political backing secured the premiership for al-Maliki.

"They have said they are frustrated that he has done nothing to oust the Sadrists, that the oil law has not moved forward, that there is no genuine effort on reconciliation and no movement on new regional elections," said the official, who like the other associates agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name because of the political sensitivities.

Passage of the oil law, which seeks a fair distribution of revenues among all Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups, has become a major issue for the United States, which had initially counted on financing Iraq's post-invasion reconstruction with oil revenues.

But the decrepit oil infrastructure and violence have left the country producing oil at about the same levels as before the war, at best, and those figures are well below production before the 1991 Gulf War that resulted in U.N. sanctions against the Iraqi oil industry.

The major Sunni bloc in parliament, along with Allawi loyalists in the Shiite bloc, openly oppose the draft measure. Al-Maliki also has lost the backing of the Shiite Fadila Party, and independent Shiite members are split on the bill. Those willing to speak about their opposition voice fears about what they see as too much possible foreign involvement and profit sharing.

The al-Maliki associates said U.S. officials, who they would not name, told the prime minister that U.S. President George W. Bush was committed to the current government but continued White House support depended on positive action on all the benchmarks especially the oil law and sectarian reconciliation by the close of this parliamentary session June 30.

"Al-Maliki iscommitted to meeting the deadline because he is convinced he would not survive in power without U.S. support," one of the associates said.

Casey, the U.S. spokesman, noted that the oil law is a goal laid out in the Iraqi constitution and repeatedly endorsed by al-Maliki. "However, the terms of that law, the specifics of that law are up to the Iraqis," he said, reports AP.

Standing in the way of forward movement is a recalcitrant Cabinet, which al-Maliki has promised to reshuffle by the end of this week. So far, however, he is at loggerheads with the political groupings in parliament that are threatening to withdraw support for the prime minister if he does not allow the blocs to name replacements for Cabinet positions.

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