We need US troops, says Iraq's new premier

Iraq’s new prime minister has made his first address to the nation, saying a rapid US withdrawal from the country would be a “major disaster” because Iraqis were not ready to handle their own security.

Iraq’s new prime minister has made his first address to the nation, saying a rapid US withdrawal from the country would be a “major disaster” because Iraqis were not ready to handle their own security.

Iyad Allawi’s call for improved Iraqi security and an end to guerrilla attacks came as unknown assailants attacked a US Army patrol in Baghdad near the Shiite district of Sadr City, killing five US soldiers and wounding five others.

Still, there were signs of hope, as an Iraqi official said the US military and Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr agreed yesterday to withdraw from areas around holy shrines south of Baghdad and turn over security to Iraqi police in a bid to end two months of fighting.

The televised speech by Allawi – a long-time exile with close ties to the CIA and US State Department, but with little popular support in Iraq – was the first by an Iraqi head of government since Saddam Hussein fell a year ago.

For the past year, such addresses have come from Paul Bremer, the top official in the US occupation authority, or from the president of the US-picked Iraqi Governing Council, a position that rotated every month.

Allawi, appointed last week to head the interim government taking power on June 30, defended the continued presence of 138,000 US troops and thousands of troops from other nations on Iraqi soil even after the handover of sovereignty.

“The targeting of the multi-national forces under the leadership of the United States to force them to leave Iraq would inflict a major disaster on Iraq, especially before the completion of the building of security and military institutions,” Allawi said.

Nevertheless, Allawi said that Iraq would never accept occupation and looked forward to having the United Nations Security Council adopt “a new resolution regarding the transfer of full sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government”.

At the United Nations yesterday, the United States and Britain again revised their security council resolution, this time giving Iraq’s interim government the authority to order the US-led multi-national force to leave at any time. But other key council members still want the Iraqis to have final say in offensive military operations by US and international troops who will remain after June 30.

The agreement to end fighting in the Shiite cities of Najaf and Kufa, in which US forces pledged to stay out of sensitive areas, is broadly similar to the accord that ended the bloody, three-week siege of Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad. The US Marines struck a deal there to lift the siege and hand over security to an Iraqi force commanded by former officers from Saddam’s army.

Local authorities in Najaf and Kufa hope the presence of more Iraqi police will defuse tensions and allow the agreement to take hold where an earlier deal with al-Sadr did not. Many Iraqi police deserted when al-Sadr launched his uprising two months ago, handing the streets over to his al-Mahdi Army.

The agreement would be a major step toward ending a two-month Shiite uprising in the south and parts of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s rebellion began after the US-led occupation authority closed his newspaper, arrested a key aide and announced a warrant for his arrest in the April 2003 murder of a moderate cleric in Najaf.

On May 27, Shiite leaders announced al-Sadr had agreed to remove his fighters from the streets and send home any militiamen who lived outside the Najaf and Kufa areas if the Americans pulled back too.

But that announcement failed to stop the daily clashes between US soldiers and militiamen, especially in Kufa, where US officials accused the militia of firing mortar shells at the American base between the two cities.

Al-Sadr failed to mention the deal in a statement read on his behalf in the Kufa mosque. The statement denounced the interim Iraqi government and insisted on an elected leadership for Iraq.

In his address, prime minister Allawi said that security was a paramount challenge facing the new government and that it would work towards national unity after the divisions created by the war, tyranny and military occupation.

He said former Baathists could live with dignity if they had not committed any crimes.

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