Iraq troop withdrawals off the agenda

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki says he believes Iraqi forces are capable of taking over security around the country within 18 months, but he did not mention a timetable for US-led coalition forces to leave.

In Washington, the White House said before a meeting between US President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair that it was premature to talk about troop withdrawals.

The killing of at least 18 people around Iraq was a reminder of the lack of security in a country where drive-by shootings and roadside bombings are so commonplace they fail to elicit any official reaction.

The US military announced that a soldier was killed in action, and Iraqi police said they found the bodies of nine people who had been tortured. The slayings pointed to the sectarian death squads in Baghdad and Iraq’s major cities.

“Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half,” Maliki said in a written statement, in which he acknowledged that security forces needed more recruits, training and equipment.

His comments came as Sunni Arab and Shiite political leaders expressed hope that compromise candidates would be found to head the defence and interior ministries by Saturday.

A firm hand guiding the two ministries could lay the groundwork for shifting security responsibilities from US-led forces to the Iraqi army and police. US officials have conceded that could take longer than Iraqi officials wish.

The violence in Iraq and the need for coalition forces will be a primary topic when Bush and Blair meet today. Both leaders have dropped sharply in the polls and are under pressure to make troop cutbacks.

“I do not believe that you’re going to hear the president or the prime minister say we’re going to be out in one year, two years, four years,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “I just don’t think you’re going to get any specific prediction of troops withdrawals.”

Iraq’s armed forces and police number about 254,000 and should reach about 273,000 by year’s end. That, according to Maliki, is when “responsibility for much of Iraq’s territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control” – except for Anbar province and Baghdad, two of the most violent areas.

Maliki and Blair said on Monday that Iraqi security forces would start assuming full responsibility for some provinces and cities next month. They declined to set a date for a coalition withdrawal.

However, handing over security responsibilities to the Iraqis does not necessarily mean that significant numbers of US-led forces will start returning home. Instead, plans call for them to move from cities to large coalition bases - where they will be on call if needed.

The Iraqi army needs to recruit at least 5,000 troops in Anbar, the western province that US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged is not fully under coalition or Iraqi government control.

“I believe that parts of Anbar are under the control of terrorists and insurgents. But as far as the country as a whole is concerned, it is the coalition forces, along with Iraqi forces, who are in control,” Khalilzad told CNN.

The US Army has said it wants make up the shortfall in Anbar with locally recruited troops, but such a move probably will not be possible unless the Defence Ministry is controlled by a Sunni Arab.

“Negotiations are under way in order to reach a decision regarding the appointment of the ministers of defence and interior. Within the coming two days, the decision will be made,” said Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the main Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Accordance Front.

Sunni Arabs also have sought the ministry as a counterbalance to the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, which many members of the minority blame for failing to disband militias they say are responsible for sectarian death squads.

Al-Dulaimi said his coalition presented six Defence Ministry nominees for vetting and made it clear that Sunni Arabs want an interior minister “who is not linked to militias”.

Shiite deputies said a seven-member selection committee failed to agree on a candidate but would keep meeting daily and hoped to make a choice by Saturday, the day before parliament convenes. The 275-member body will have to approve any candidates.

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