- Associated Press - Sunday, August 28, 2011

BAGHDAD — The U.N.’s outgoing top diplomat in Iraq on Sunday said the government in Baghdad must determine whether its security forces are strong enough to thwart violence before requiring U.S. troops to leave at the end of the year.

In his last interview after two years in Baghdad, U.N. envoy Ad Melkert said Iraqi security forces have made “clear improvements,” but he declined to say if he thinks they are ready to protect the country without help from the U.S. military.

He spoke to the Associated Press hours before a suicide bomber blew himself up inside Baghdad’s largest Sunni mosque Sunday night, killing five people during prayers, officials said.

Khalid al-Fahdawi, a member of parliament, was among the dead in the 9:40 p.m. strike. Seventeen worshippers were wounded.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Baghdad’s military operations command, confirmed the attack happened inside the Um al-Qura mosque during prayers in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Jamiaah.

The blue-domed building is the largest Sunni mosque in Baghdad.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments are negotiating how many American troops might stay, and what role they would play, in a mission that has already lasted more than eight years.

A 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but the country’s shaky security situation and vulnerability to Iranian influence has prompted politicians on both sides to buck widespread public disapproval and reconsider the deadline.

In a wide-ranging interview before his departure on Monday, Mr. Melkert said the ultimate decision on the future of foreign forces is Iraq’s to make.

“It’s up to the government, really, to assess if it is enough to deal with the risks that are still around,” he said. “Obviously, security remains a very important issue.”

Chief among the U.N.’s concerns about security are tensions between Arabs and Kurds over disputed land in Iraq’s north.

Some analysts have predicted that the tensions could lead to civil war if the years-long dispute isn’t settled and security forces are unable to contain violence there.

To keep tensions from boiling over, Mr. Melkert said joint Arab-Kurdish security forces in the swath of disputed lands must continue to work together if the Americans leave. The joint force was designed by the U.S. military, which fears it will dissolve without their hands-on guidance.

Mr. Melkert said he believes the joint force will remain intact, calling it “extremely important” during work to parcel out the swath of disputed territory in Ninevah, Tamim and Diyala provinces, with the city of Kirkuk at the center.

“You cannot eternally have disputed areas, because sooner or later there will be interests to abuse the unresolved nature of the situation,” Mr. Melkert said. “But it needs to be done, of course, in a more stable environment, and I believe these joint coordination centers, joint checkpoints, can play an important role in providing that stability.”

Last year, Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno, who was then commanding U.S. forces in Iraq, suggested that U.N. peacekeepers could continue to mentor the Arab-Kurd forces if American troops leave.

Mr. Melkert all but ruled that out. “There’s certainly no talk of any U.N. peacekeeping efforts,” he said.



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