- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s president said yesterday that he had been assured that American troops will stay in his country as long as needed, while at least 14 persons were killed in explosions and gunfire nationwide.

A top U.S. general, meanwhile, said he was “very, very pleased” with the response of Iraqi armed forces in containing recent sectarian bloodshed, disputing critics who said too little was done to quell attacks that killed more than 500 people the past week.

Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, spent two days in Baghdad meeting with top Iraqi leaders after the Feb. 22 bombing of a golden-domed Shi’ite shrine in Samarra triggered reprisal attacks against Sunnis that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

Iraqi security forces blunted the sectarian killing with an extraordinary daytime curfew in four flash-point provinces last weekend, followed by a driving ban in Baghdad on Friday.

But with the ban lifted yesterday, violence resumed, with a bomb exploding at a bus terminal in southeastern Baghdad, killing seven persons and wounding 25.

Gen. Abizaid said he was “very, very pleased with the reaction of the Iraqi armed forces during the aftermath of the bombing in Samarra.”

He warned that more such attacks were likely but added: “We believe that the Iraqi armed forces, in conjunction with the multinational force, can deal with any security problem that may arise.”

That was a more upbeat assessment than the one given Thursday by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, who told reporters that Iraqi police and army units had performed “generally well, not uniformly well.”

Gen. Casey said the mostly Shi’ite security forces sometimes gave armed sectarian fighters free rein in Baghdad and Basra, where reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics took days to contain.

The surge of sectarian killing has complicated already tangled negotiations to form a broad-based government after the Dec. 15 parliamentary election, which U.S. officials consider essential to stabilize the country so their troops can start pulling out this summer.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, visiting Iraq as part of her duties on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was imperative that Iraqi politicians act quickly to get a government in place.

“The security vacuum will continue to develop if there isn’t a permanent and strong leadership soon,” Mrs. Snowe said.

President Jalal Talabani said Gen. Abizaid assured him U.S. forces “are ready to stay as long as we ask them, no matter what the period is.”

Mr. Talabani, a Kurd, is at the center of a campaign by Sunni, Kurdish and some secular politicians to deny the Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari a second term. The three blocs have asked the dominant Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance to nominate another candidate.

The Sunni Arab minority blames Mr. al-Jaafari for failing to control Shi’ite militiamen who went on a rampage after the destruction of the Shi’ite Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque.

Kurds are angry because they think Mr. al-Jaafari is holding up the resolution of their claims to control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“With all our respect to Dr. al-Jaafari, we asked them to choose a candidate who is unanimously agreed on by Iraqis,” Mr. Talabani said. “I want to be clear, it is not against Dr. al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years.”

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