Thursday, January 18, 2007

Maliki Stresses Urgency In Arming Iraqi Forces

Need for U.S. Troops Could Drop 'Dramatically'

BAGHDAD, Jan. 17 -- The Iraqi government's need for American troops would "dramatically go down" in three to six months if the United States accelerated the process of equipping and arming Iraq's security forces, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday.

The head of Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government defended his country's independence and sovereignty and called on U.S. leaders to show faith in his ability to lead.

Maliki disputed President Bush's remarks broadcast Tuesday that the execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein "looked like it was kind of a revenge killing" and took exception to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Senate testimony last week that Maliki's administration was on "borrowed time."

The prime minister said statements such as Rice's "give morale boosts for the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort and making them believe they have defeated the American administration," Maliki said. "But I can tell you that they have not defeated the Iraqi government."

Speaking through an interpreter to a group of reporters for an hour in his offices in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Maliki found several ways to say that Iraq is beholden to no country. He defended Iraq's constitutional right to the death penalty, its commitment to dialogue with Iran and Syria despite U.S. opposition to those governments, and its determination to use Iraqi troops to lead the latest effort to pacify Baghdad.

At a time when Bush has committed an additional 21,500 troops to the fight in Iraq, Maliki went further than he has before in establishing a time frame for drawing down the U.S. presence.

"If we succeed in implementing the agreement between us to speed up the equipping and providing weapons to our military forces, I think that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down. That's on the condition that there are real strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping them and arming them," Maliki said.

In a statement issued by Maliki's office Tuesday, he said Iraq would continue to build up its armed forces "so it will be possible to withdraw the Multinational forces from cities, or withdraw 50,000 soldiers from Iraq."

Maliki faces deep skepticism in Iraq and abroad about whether he has the political will or ability to steer his country away from civil war, or even to keep his position as prime minister. His comments amounted to a defense of the viability of his government, which he pledged to lead "until I achieve the peace and prosperity that Iraq deserves."

In an interview Dec. 24, Maliki sounded less committed to his office. "I wish I could be done with it before the end" of his four-year term, he told the Wall Street Journal. "I would like to serve my people from outside the circle of senior officials, maybe through parliament."

In the interview Wednesday, Maliki said many American and Iraqi lives would have been spared if the Iraqi forces had been better equipped. But he did not elaborate on what he wanted in terms of weapons or materiel, or whether his needs exceeded what is proposed in the $1.5 billion military sales agreement Iraq reached with the United States last month. Under that deal, the Iraqi government will receive an additional 300 armored personnel carriers, 600 more "up-armored" Humvees, helicopters and other equipment this year, according to Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Iraq's proposed 2007 budget devotes $7 billion to building up the armed forces.

"President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki agreed in November to accelerate not only the training of the Iraqi security forces but also accelerate the transfer of equipment," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Wednesday.

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