Maliki insists Iraqis ready to keep security if US leaves

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said Saturday that the Iraqi army and police are capable of keeping security in the country when American troops leave “any time they want”, though he acknowledged the forces need further weapons and training.The embattled prime minister sought to show confidence at a time when pressure in the US Congress is growing for a withdrawal and the Bush administration reported little progress had been made on the most vital of a series of political reforms it wants Maliki to carry out.

Moreover, the Pentagon on Friday conceded that the Iraqi army has become more reliant on the US military. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, said the number of Iraqi batallions able to operate on their own without US support has dropped in recent months from 10 to six, though he said the fall was in part due to attrition from stepped-up offensives.

In new violence in Baghdad on Saturday, a car bomb levelled a two-storey apartment building, and a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-packed vehicle into a line of cars at a gas station in new attacks in Baghdad that killed at least eight people.

Maliki made his first public comments on Thursday’s White House report on the reforms, saying his government needed time to enact the political benchmarks that Washington seeks. He insisted it was “fairly natural” that progress would be difficult considering the violence in Iraq and the deep divisions among its leaders.

“We need time and effort, particularly since the political process is facing security, economic and services pressures, as well as regional and international interference,” he told reporters at a Baghdad press conference, without giving a time frame.

“These difficulties can be read as a big success, not negative points, when they are viewed under the shadow of the big challenges. That is what should be understood in the White House report,” Maliki said.

The report fuelled calls among congressional critics of the Iraqi policy for a change in strategy, including a withdrawal of American forces. The White House insists it is too early to call its strategy a failure.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari warned earlier last week of civil war and the collapse of the government if the Americans leave. But Maliki told reporters Saturday, “We say in full confidence that we are able, God willing, to take the responsibility completely in running the security file if the international forces withdraw at any time they want.” But he added that Iraqi forces are “still in need of more weapons and rehabilitation” to be ready in the case of a withdrawal.

In the White House strategy, beefed-up American forces have been waging intensified security crackdowns in Baghdad and areas to the north and south for nearly a month. The goal is to being quiet to the capital while Maliki enacts the political reforms, intended to give Sunni Arabs a greater role in the goverment and political process, lessening support for the insurgency.

But the benchmarks have been blocked by divisions among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds within Maliki’s Cabinet. In August, the parliament is taking a one month vacation — a shorter break than the usual two months, but still enough to anger some in Congress who say lawmakers should push through reforms.

The divisions within Maliki’s coalition are not only over the substance of the reforms, but also over separate disputes that have stalled even debate over such legislation as a draft bill to fairly distribute control over and profits from the vital oil sector.

Maliki said some members of his coalition have not formed a “positive partnership” with the others.

Maliki has been talking for months of a Cabinet reshuffle that would shed Sunni and Shiite parties seen as obstructionist to form a “coalition of moderates” — though there’s been no sign a change was imminent.

Also Saturday, the US military said it captured an alleged high-level Al Qaeda in Iraq cell leader at Baghdad’s international airport. The suspect, believed to have organised mortar and roadside bomb attacks in the capital and nearby area, surrendered “without a struggle”, the military said in a statement.

It did not give details on the suspect or say whether he was travelling in or out of the country when siezed.

In the latest violence, a suicide bomber hit cars lined up at a gas station in the southeastern district of Rashin Camp around 11:30am, setting seven vehicles on fire and damaging nearby shops, a police official said. The blast killed seven civilians and wounded 15 others, the official said.

Shortages force Iraqis to stay in line for hours to fill their vehicles or buy fuel for generators they rely on for power amid the capital’s frequent electricity outages.

Hours earlier, a parked car bomb detonated in the western neighbourhood of Amil, reducing one apartment building to rubble and heavily damaging a second, another police official said. The 7:30am blast killed at least one person and wounded five others, and authorities were searching the wreckage for more victims, the official said.

After the blast, several nearby cars were left damaged, and a metal crutch lay in the street next to a pool of blood, according to AP Television news footage of the scene.

Both police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorise to release details of the attacks.

An adviser to Maliki said a fierce gunbattle on Friday between US troops and Iraqi police that killed six policemen was the result of a misunderstanding. US troops had seized a police lieutenant accused of links to Iranian-backed Shiite groups when it came under fire.

Hassan Suneid, a legislator close to the prime minister, said American troops did not know a police checkpoint was nearby and “thought they were terrorists”.  He said Iraqi soldiers with the Americans also fired on the police.

The US military said Friday that it was the police at the checkpoint who opened fire on the Americans first, along with gunmen on nearby rooftops and at a church. US troops called in warplanes for ground strikes, and six policemen and seven gunmen were killed.

The raid captured the lieutenant, who the military said was helping Iran organise Shiite groups and led a cell involved in bomb and mortar attacks on US and Iraqi troops. The military did not specify that the police who fired on the Americans were linked to factions as well but said the police maintained “heavy and accurate fire” on the US troops.

The battle underscored the deep infiltration of Shiite fighters in the police force. Purging the force is one of the benchmarks, and Thursday’s report acknowledged progress in it has been “unsatisfactory”.

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