Troops ready, al-Maliki says

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared yesterday that Iraqi forces could secure the country on their own "any time" American troops decided to withdraw, his first response to the White House report this week that found his government falling well short of many political reforms and military readiness goals sought by the Bush administration.

Al-Maliki has been under attack by American officials and many Iraqi politicians for leading a government mired in disputes and unable to make progress on major legislation seen as crucial to stabilizing the country. Support is growing in Congress for an American troop pullout that would leave Iraqi forces, which are already facing sectarianism, absenteeism and other problems, to battle the Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militias that dominate parts of the country.

The White House report found that Iraq failed to make satisfactory progress meeting eight out of 18 major milestones, such as passing an oil-revenue-sharing law and ending favoritism in the security forces. Such favoritism toward Shiites, the report found, even included evidence of al-Maliki aides distributing "target lists" of Sunnis to be killed or arrested directly to low-level commanders.

Al-Maliki acknowledged that he wants his army and police forces to have more American-backed training, but he insisted that Iraqi forces could deal adequately with an abrupt American pullout.

"We say with confidence that we are capable, God willing, of taking full responsibility for the security file if the international forces withdraw in any time they wish," he said.

That seemed at odds with statements Friday by senior American military commanders that efforts to train Iraqi forces had slowed during the five-month-old Baghdad security plan and would need to be widened to allow any large withdrawal of American troops. There are now just six Iraqi battalions able to operate without American support, compared with 10 in March, military officials said.

At a news conference in Baghdad, al-Maliki addressed the shortcomings in Iraqi troop training.

"The government is serious about increasing the number of armed forces," he said, "rehabilitating them, and buying weapons so the forces are more capable of handling security at the minute" American-led forces leave.

In Baghdad, the American military said in a statement that a soldier from Task Force Marne was killed by a land mine during a foot patrol yesterday. No other details were provided.

One day after an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times, Khalid W. Hassan, 23, was shot and killed in the capital on his way to work, Reuters said gunmen killed an Iraqi who worked as a translator for the news agency, the third Iraqi staffer for Reuters slain this week.

The 30-year-old translator was killed Wednesday along with two brothers in Baghdad, Reuters said, adding that the killings appeared to be another of the sectarian executions common in the capital.

The employee was not named at the request of his family, the news agency said.

Two other Iraqi staffers for Reuters were killed Thursday during clashes between the American military and Shiite militias in a southeastern Baghdad neighborhood.

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