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Iraqis take up gauntlet

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's top two leaders called for jump-starting the nation's court system and revamping security forces to end the bloody insurgency and open the way for U.S. troops to come home.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in exclusive interviews over the weekend with The Washington Times, each told of their desire to reach out to politically isolated Sunnis and include them into their effort to move the war-torn nation forward.

Mr. al-Jaafari, the moderate Shi'ite cleric who is a member of the Dawa Party, which opposed Saddam Hussein, said the first step toward eradicating the cycle of street violence would be to jump-start the court system and start prosecuting criminals to deter crime.

"We believe if this becomes evident to people that we are pushing this process and that we are serious about it, this will deter others and will reduce the crime rate," he said, sitting in his heavily guarded green zone villa.

Mr. Talabani emphasized bringing the insurgency under control.

"We need to rebuild our security forces on a new basis. In the beginning, the security forces were built on the wrong basis: They were gathered from the street, regardless of their loyalty to democracy, to the new regime or their relation to the old regime," said Mr. Talabani, in a separate interview in his fortified residence in Baghdad.

The role of the United States, they said, was important, but it would have to change its profile in order to defuse deep tensions that had developed between the Americans and the Iraqi people.

Both Mr. Talabani and Mr. al-Jaafari, who have been working 14-plus-hour days meeting with an array of ethnic, tribal and religious leaders, as well as with technocrats, emphasized the importance of the next 10 months as they lay down the foundations for a new Iraq.

Although they agreed that they would not be able to resolve all the complex issues facing Iraq in the short time until the next round of elections will be held, the year would be a crucial tipping point in ending the violence and pushing Iraq forward.

Mr. al-Jaafari agreed that the new Iraqi government would need to invest more and quickly develop the quality and performance of the Iraqi security apparatus and network.

Although police training has been a U.S. priority, critics of the U.S.-run program say police have been hired without proper background checks, have received inadequate training and follow-up, and need better equipment to fight off the organized and heavily armed insurgents.

Iraqis on the street say that increased Iraqi police and army presence on the streets has improved overall security during the past few months.

The Sunnis, once favored by Saddam and now struggling to find their place in the new Iraq after boycotting the elections, are thought to be behind a large portion of the violence in the central region of the country.

"The election was a turning point. The Sunnis have started to regret that they didn't participate in the election, and [now] many groups of them want to participate in the new process and want to participate in calming down their areas," Mr. Talabani said.

He added that as president he would likely declare an amnesty for many of the 10,000 prisoners, many of whom were members of political parties caught in wide-net raids and not guilty of killings.

The president said the biggest problem is "the lack of a comprehensive and correct plan" to end Iraq's complex and multilayered insurgency. Only then, he said, could the new government draw up an economic plan to put the country back on its feet.

Leading parties in the newly elected National Assembly have spent the past 2 months thrashing out the formation of the government and ministers.

Although vastly different in background -- Mr. Talabani was a Kurdish peshmerga militia fighter who lived in the mountains, while Mr. al-Jaafari is a medical doctor who spent time in Iran and England -- both leaders agreed that U.S. and coalition forces would have to stay in Iraq for a while.

"During my term, I do not expect that we will not need the foreign troops, the coalition forces," said Mr. al-Jaafari, whose tone on U.S. forces was more circumspect than Mr. Talabani's. "Even if they might be phased down, we still need their presence in the country."