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Iraqi Premier Wants More Control Over His Military

November 29, 2006|Alexandra Zavis and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri Maliki will push for the U.S. military to relinquish control over his nation's security forces when he meets President Bush today to discuss a strategy to quell raging violence in Iraq, aides and political insiders said Tuesday.

Frustrated by U.S. accusations that he isn't doing enough, Maliki says his hands are tied as long as he does not have the authority to deploy forces as he sees fit. He wants Bush to accelerate the training of the army and police, fund more recruits and provide them with bigger and better weapons, lawmakers briefed by Maliki said.

The prime minister also will insist at the two-day summit in Jordan that his government should drive negotiations with Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, they said.

Maliki's emboldened stand comes at a time of uncertainty for U.S. strategy in Iraq. Bush is under pressure to make changes after Democrats swept the midterm congressional election on a wave of unhappiness about the war's results.

Bush is waiting for recommendations from a bipartisan commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), which Tuesday continued work on its final report.

Democrats want Bush to set a timeline to start reducing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. But Bush maintained Tuesday that there was no possibility of an immediate pullout.

"There's one thing I'm not going to do," he said during an afternoon speech in Riga, Latvia, where he was attending a NATO summit. "I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is completed."

Bush is also under pressure to enlist the help of Iran and Syria in curbing the bloodshed. But he ruled out direct negotiation with Iran unless it halts a uranium enrichment program that potentially could be used to produce nuclear weapons.

While the United States considers its options, Maliki's government has opened direct talks with both countries.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was in Tehran on Tuesday, securing promises of assistance from his counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also has accepted an invitation to visit Syria, said his spokesman, Hiwa Osman, reached by telephone in Tehran.

The comments came on the eve of a hastily arranged summit in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where King Abdullah II will hold talks with Bush and Maliki after a week of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq's civil war.

At least 215 people were killed in coordinated car bombings Thursday in a Shiite Muslim slum of Baghdad, a stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia. Hundreds more died in days of reprisal attacks, as Shiite and Sunni militiamen pounded neighborhoods with mortar rounds and gunfire.

As the toll grew, Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide directed their anger at the United States and demanded an immediate pullout.

"If the Americans withdraw, the fighting will stop," Iraq's most revered Sunni cleric, Harith Dhari, said in Jordan, where he met with Abdullah in the run-up to the summit. "Once Americans make the decision to withdraw, whether it is in one or two years, we can go to the resistance and tell them you have what you have been fighting for."

But other Sunnis trapped in Baghdad's strife-torn neighborhoods said they had no one besides the Sunni fighters to turn to for protection. They accused Iraq's Shiite-dominated police force of turning a blind eye to sectarian death squads and even colluding with them.

Sunnis are likely to find threatening any consolidation of security forces in Maliki's hands.

Adnan Dulaimi, head of the Sunni bloc in parliament, found himself calling for U.S. help when gunmen attacked his home over the weekend.

"I think that without the Americans, there will be a security vacuum and the result will be civil war," he said Tuesday.

Sadr's political representatives threatened last week to pull out of parliament and the Cabinet if Maliki met with Bush, a move that could precipitate the collapse of a painfully crafted government drawing in representatives of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups. By Tuesday, however, they had softened their stance.

"We will wait until we have the visit and then we will examine the situation: Are there any benefits or good results for the Iraqi people?" said Nassar Rubaie, a spokesman for Sadr's political bloc. "Then we will discuss it and eventually decide" whether to pull out.

Bush said he intended to ask questions of Maliki, rather than offer his own solutions.

"My questions to him will be: What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?" Bush told reporters in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, en route to the Riga summit.

Maliki insiders said the prime minister's answer would be to tell U.S. commanders to give the Iraqi government full control over its security forces.

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