BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Hours before congressional hearings on the progress of the U.S. military buildup, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the Iraqi parliament yesterday that security has improved sharply in the capital and that Iraq is moving away from civil war.
U.S. military officials, meanwhile, announced yesterday the deaths of nine American soldiers, including seven in a vehicle accident on west side of the capital. Two detainees were killed in the accident, and 11 soldiers were injured.
Al-Maliki gave an optimistic assessment of his country's progress since the U.S. military buildup began in February before Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testified before Congress.
"We have been successful in preventing Iraq from sliding into civil war, which was threatening our dear country," al-Maliki said in a speech broadcast live in Iraq. "We are sure that national reconciliation is our only option, that it will take Iraq to safety. Despite disturbances made by some of the sides, local and foreign, the mission has been successful."
Afterward, when he fielded questions from the 275-mem- ber parliament, lawmakers questioned his leadership, the effectiveness of his government and the U.S.-led strategy for achieving peace.
More than half of the members of al-Maliki's Cabinet have quit since spring, in part because security forces have been unable to quell the sectarian violence that has driven Iraqis from their homes, including an estimated 2 million who have become refugees in neighboring countries.
"What progress are you talking about, Mr. Prime Minister?" asked Shadha Mousawi of the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite Muslim bloc in the government. "I am originally a resident of west Baghdad, Adel and Jamia. None of the displaced families there have returned. Those few who have dared try to return were immediately targeted and assassinated."
Others questioned the use of armed groups of residents to provide security, arguing that those Iraqis could easily turn against the government and each other.
"The Iraqi government is not arming the tribes as alleged," al-Maliki said. "The tribes are providing volunteers for police and armed forces in their various regions. Only after allowing them into these establishments do we provide them with weapons."
Al- Maliki suggested that it is too early to reduce the number of U.S. troops, which has grown to more than 160,000 since President Bush announced the buildup in January.
"Despite improved security, we still realize we need more time and effort so our security forces can take security [responsibilities] from multinational forces," he said.
The government announced the easing of curfews in Baghdad for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week.
Sam Enriquez writes for the Los Angeles Times.