- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer said yesterday that it would be “complete nonsense” to ask foreign troops to leave the country now, although some could depart by year’s end.

Officials, meanwhile, began the final vote tally from elections to produce a government to confront the insurgency.

Despite scattered clashes in rebel areas across the country, Iraq reopened its borders yesterday and commercial flights took off from Baghdad International Airport as authorities eased security restrictions imposed to protect Sunday’s landmark elections.

In Baghdad, about 200 election workers began the second — and possibly final — stage of the count.

They reviewed tally sheets prepared by workers who counted ballots starting Sunday night at the 5,200 polling centers across the country and began crunching the numbers into 80 computer terminals. Officials said no figures were expected to be released immediately.

The ballots have been sent to Baghdad, but will not be recounted unless there are challenges or discrepancies in the tally sheets, officials said.

A Shi’ite clerical-backed alliance was expected to win the largest number of seats in the 275-member National Assembly created in the elections. But the alliance is not expected to win the two-thirds majority required to name a prime minister without support from other parties.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s ticket was expected to finish second among the 111 candidate lists.

Sunday’s elections, which occurred without catastrophic rebel attacks, raised hopes that a new Iraqi government would be able to assume greater responsibility for security, hastening the day when the 170,000 U.S. and other foreign troops can return home.

During a press conference, Mr. al-Yawer was asked whether the presence of foreign troops might be fueling the Sunni Arab revolt by encouraging rebel attacks.

“It’s only complete nonsense to ask the troops to leave in this chaos and this vacuum of power,” Mr. al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, said.

He said foreign troops should leave only after Iraq’s security forces are built up, the country’s security situation has improved and some pockets of terrorists are eliminated.

“By the end of this year, we could see the number of foreign troops decreasing,” the Iraqi president said.

He had been a strong critic of some aspects of the U.S. military’s performance in Iraq, including the three-week Marine siege on Sunni rebels in the city of Fallujah in April.

Mr. al-Yawer helped negotiate an end to that siege. But the city fell into the hands of insurgents and religious zealots, forcing the Marines to recapture Fallujah in November in some of the heaviest urban combat for American forces since the Vietnam War.

“There were some mistakes” in the occupation “but to be fair … I think, all in all, it was positive, the contribution of the foreign forces in Iraq,” he said. “It was worth it.”

Later yesterday, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said Iraq would only ask U.S. and other forces to leave when the country’s own troops were capable of taking on insurgents.

“We don’t want to have foreign troops in our country; but at the same time, we believe that these forces should stay for some time until we are able to control the borders and establish a new modern army and we have efficient intelligence,” Mr. Shaalan told reporters. “At that time … we’ll ask them to leave.”

Meanwhile, a Web site posted a photograph of what it claimed was a kidnapped U.S. soldier, but doubts were quickly raised about its authenticity and the U.S. military said no soldiers were missing.

Liam Cusack, of the toy manufacturer Dragon Models USA, inc., said the image of the soldier portrayed in the photo bore a striking resemblance to the black version of its “Cody” action figure.

“It is our doll … to me it definitely looks like it is,” Mr. Cusack said. “Everything the guy is wearing is exactly what comes with our figure.”

He said the figures were ordered by the U.S. military in Kuwait for sale in their bases, “so they would have been in region.”

The statement appeared on a Web site often used for posting statements from Islamic militants, some of which have proven authentic in the past. Also, it was in the name of a group that has claimed previous kidnappings, the Mujahedeen Brigades.

The Arabic text, however, contained several misspellings and repetitions.

Staff Sgt. Nick Minecci of the U.S. military’s press office in Baghdad said “no units have reported anyone missing.”

Nearly 200 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq in a wave of kidnappings this year. At least 10 hostages, including three American civilians, remain in the hands of kidnappers, and at least 35 foreign hostages have been killed, including three Americans.

The only American soldier known to have been taken hostage is Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio, who was shown in a video in April being held by militants. Another video aired in June showed what purported to be the soldier’s slaying, but the picture was too unclear to confirm it was him and the military still lists him as missing.

In the latest violence, clashes broke out early yesterday in the eastern Mosul neighborhood of Nablus between insurgents and Iraqi guardsmen, officials said. One person was killed and another injured. A roadside bomb killed four Iraqi guardsmen in the northwest of the city, Lt. Khalil Rashid said.

Two policemen were killed when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded on a street in the Kurdish-run city of Irbil.

U.S. troops clashed with insurgents yesterday near the main market in Qaim near the Syrian border, sending crowds fleeing, witnesses said. There was no report of casualties.

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