after mounting Shiite-sponsored bloodshed, killings of provincial governors in Southern Iraq and Jordanian criticism, envoy crocker asks for new leadership

BAGHDAD (AP) — In mounting bloodshed south of Baghdad, suspected Shiite militiamen stormed a Sunni home Tuesday and gunned down seven members of one family, including a baby being dandled on her mother’s shoulder.

In the shadow of that violence, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker — co-author of a highly anticipated report to Congress next month — said Washington’s blueprint for reconciliation was insufficient to win back control of the country. Congressional benchmarks do not tell the whole story, he told reporters.

Crocker and U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus may be heading into a perfect storm of discontent as they argue before Congress that American forces need more time in Iraq.

Last week, a stunning suicide bomb attack killed as many as 500 people in northern Iraq. The gruesome family murder south of the capital on Tuesday pointed to a fierce continuation of sectarian cleansing. And even U.S. President George W. Bush’s acknowledged frustration with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s leadership during a Tuesday trip to Canada.

Added to that, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said al-Maliki’s should be ousted in favor of a less sectarian and more unifying leader. Levin issued the call shortly after visiting the Iraq.

The brutal attack south of Baghdad killed seven members of 70-year-old Khayrallah Salman’s family. He ran a small grocery in Mahaweel, 60 kilometers (35 miles) south of Baghdad, and perished along with six other family members — including the six-month-old girl and two women. A son and a daughter-in-law were wounded, according to Babil province police Capt. Muthanna Khalid.

A witness said the baby’s mother, who survived, was bouncing the child on here shoulder when the gunmen opened fore. The witness would not allow use of her name, fearing retribution.

Four gunmen broke into the house about 8:30 a.m. and other witnesses and neighbors said Shiite Mahdi Army militiamen were responsible for the killings of the family, members of the Sunni al-Janabi tribe. Police did not give a motive, and allegations against the militia could not be independently confirmed.

The Mahdi Army, which is nominally loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has splintered in recent months as the firebrand cleric has taken refuge in Iran. Those so-called rogue militiamen are active in the area and accused of a sectarian campaign to rid Baghdad and surrounding areas of Sunnis.

Closing out a three-day visit to Baghdad, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the United States could not bring peace to Iraq without help. He said Iraqi leaders expressed hope France would play a role.

Kouchner unannounced visit seen as a shift in Franco-U.S. relations and was the first visit by a top French official since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which France fiercely opposed.

“It was necessary to be here,” Kouchner said. “Everyone knows that the Americans cannot bring this country out of difficulty all alone.”

Al-Maliki met with Kouchner late Sunday before he left to Syria, where he met President Bashar Assad on Tuesday. Al-Maliki described the talks as positive, stressing the necessity of good relations between Baghdad and Damascus. Assad said he wanted to see calm restored in Iraq.

“We want this visit to be a success and we are interested in stabilizing Iraq and improving its situation,” Assad told al-Maliki.

Damascus said earlier this month it had taken measures on its eastern border to increase security, including stationing fixed check points and border patrols and tightening measures on the crossing of people under the age of 30. Iraq and the United States claim Assad had not done enough to prevent the flow of foreign fighters across the long, porous dessert frontier.

In Baghdad, Crocker spoke to reporters a few days before traveling to Washington to report to the president and Congress. He called Iraq’s problems difficult but still fixable, arguing for more time for his diplomacy and the bolstered American military force.

“Failure to meet any of them (congressionally mandated benchmarks) does not mean the definitive failure of the state or the society.

“Conversely, to make them all would not by any means mean that they’ve turned the corner and it’s a sun-dappled upland from here on in with peace and harmony and background music. It’s just a lot more complex than that,” he said during the briefing at the U.S. Embassy — Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace in the Green Zone.

He parroted Bush’s frustration with the al-Maliki government’s lack of action on key legislative measures.

“Progress on national level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned, to us, to Iraqis, to the Iraqi leadership itself.”

But, Crocker said the Shiite prime minister was working “in the shadow of a huge national trauma.”

And he said Washington would continue supporting al-Maliki’s government “as it makes serious efforts to achieve national reconciliation and deliver effective governance to the people of Iraq. It’s not just an issue of the prime minister. It’s the whole government that has to perform here. … Our support is not a blank check.”

Crocker acknowledged “a lot of violence” in southern Iraq where bombers killed Muthana province Gov. Mohammed Ali al-Hassani on Monday and his colleague Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza in neighboring Qadasiyah province nine days earlier.

The killings raised the specter of more bloody showdowns south of Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army is fighting the mainstream Shiite group in parliament. The concerns were intensified by the looming withdrawal of British forces from the region in the coming months.

Both governors were members the Shiite political powerhouse, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. His loyalists dominate the police in the south of Iraq and are fighting Mahdi Army militiamen for dominance in the south — which may hold 70% or more of Iraq’s oil reserves, according to various estimates.

Al-Sadr issued a statement late Monday condemning attacks against the Shiite governors, which he said were aimed at creating a rift among Iraq’s majority Islamic sect.

Al-Sadr also renewed his demand that al-Maliki set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops. He pulled his five ministers out of the Cabinet in April over that issue.

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