BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” The United States has shown “arrogance” and “stupidity” in Iraq, a senior US diplomat said in an interview aired on Sunday, after US President George W. Bush said he was flexible on tactics, if not strategy.
In an attack that highlights the problems Washington faces in recruiting and training Iraqi security forces, 13 police recruits were killed and 25 more wounded in an ambush on a convoy of buses near the town of Baqouba on Sunday.
US military deaths in Iraq in October have reached 80, making it the most deadly month for Americans this year and adding to pressure on Bush before congressional elections next month in which Republicans could lose majorities in both houses.
“We tried to do our best [in Iraq] but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq,” US State Department official Alberto Fernandez told Al Jazeera television, according to a Reuters reporter who heard the interview, which was in Arabic.
Earlier, the State Department said that the English translation of the comments posted on Al Jazeera’s English language website had misquoted Fernandez, its director of public diplomacy in the bureau of Near Eastern affairs.
“What he [Fernandez] says is that it is not an accurate quote,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Asked whether he thought the United States would be judged as being arrogant, McCormack said “No”.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Maliki has been meeting Shiite clerics this week to enlist their support in calming infighting in southern Iraq as well as sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis.
Disarming armed groups such as the Mehdi Army, loyal to powerful young cleric Moqtada Sadr, is seen as crucial by the United States but has proved difficult for Maliki who relies on the support of the political groups linked to the armed factions.
On Saturday, Bush held a videoconference with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, top White House officials and US military officials in Iraq, who have admitted that a two-month plan to secure Baghdad has failed to rein in violence and that the strategy is under review.
In his radio address on Saturday, Bush said: “We will continue to be flexible, and make every necessary change to prevail in this struggle.” He added: “Our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging.”
The White House has drawn a distinction between flexibility on tactics and a big overhaul of the strategy in Iraq, and officials have suggested such a broad revamp was not imminent.
Longtime Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James Baker is leading a panel that is preparing recommendations for alternative strategies in Iraq.
But the Iraq Study Group’s report will not be issued until after the November 7 elections, when some polls suggest Republicans could lose control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats and some Republicans say it is time to reassess US policy in Iraq three years after the invasion.
Some have suggested the administration might use the bipartisan group’s findings as cover for an exit strategy.
Key Senate Democrats urged the White House on Sunday not to wait until after the elections to give the Iraqi government a timetable to assume a larger role in securing the country.
The top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, said the strategy blueprint being drafted should include a schedule for pulling out US forces.
Sunday’s ambush in Baquba highlighted a key problem â€” how to establish security when police officers are often accused of sectarian or tribal loyalties, and police and army recruits are reviled by some for collaborating with US occupiers.
A local official said a bomb blast hit the convoy and then gunmen ambushed the buses, which were taking the police recruits to Baghdad from a base which was attacked by insurgents using mortars and rifle fire on Saturday.
The attack on Saturday on the base housing some 300 recruits left many dead and 80 wounded, the official said.
Another 25 were wounded in Sunday’s ambush. The attackers left the bodies of the dead lined up on the highway, boobytrapped with explosives.
Baqouba, 65 km north of Baghdad, is in an area with a mixed population of Shiites and Sunni Arabs and has seen relentless sectarian bloodshed in recent months.
The US military death toll in October rose to 80 on Sunday with the announcement a Marine had been killed in western Anbar province on Saturday, and a soldier killed and three more wounded on Saturday in Salaheddin province.