- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

BAGHDAD — The U.S. Central Command chief confronted Iraq’s prime minister yesterday over how Iraqi forces would halt raging violence and signaled a possible prelude to shifts in American policy on engaging Iran and Syria.

The meeting came as sectarian attacks killed at least 91 persons throughout Iraq, 46 of them showing signs of torture. The U.S. military announced the deaths of four additional American soldiers. So far this month, 34 American service members have been killed or have died in Iraq.

Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, sternly warned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he must disband Shi’ite militias and give the United States proof they were disarmed, according to senior Iraqi government officials with knowledge of what the two men discussed.

Beyond that, Gen. Abizaid asked the Iraqi leader to give the U.S. military a firm timetable for when Iraq’s security forces could take full control of the country, the officials said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

Mr. al-Maliki has been pressing Washington to move more quickly to hand security affairs over to his army, asserting it could crush violence in the country within six months. Gen. Abizaid apparently called Mr. al-Maliki’s bluff by asking the prime minister to give a detailed explanation of how he would do that. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, recently said it would take 12 to 18 months before Iraqi security forces were ready to control the whole country with some U.S. backup.

The United States did not respond to requests for comment on yesterday’s meeting.

But a brief statement by the Iraqi government said Gen. Abizaid told Mr. al-Maliki he had come to “reaffirm President Bush’s commitment” to success in this country. It also said the two discussed the impact of “neighboring countries on the security situation in Iraq,” a clear reference to Iran and Syria.

The reference to Iraq’s neighbors coincided with a call by British Prime Minister Tony Blair for Iran and Syria to help stem bloodshed in Iraq and to join efforts to stabilize the Middle East.

The Syrian ambassador to Washington affirmed a readiness to work with the United States.

“We in Syria believe that engagement with the United States on Iraq can help a lot, because we believe that we need to stabilize the situation in Iraq and support the political process there,” Imad Moustapha told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Gen. Abizaid was the third top U.S. official to visit Iraq since Oct. 30, and the meeting comes a day after Mr. al-Maliki promised to shake up his government in a bid to end the sectarian slaughter.

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley was first to visit, followed five days later by U.S. National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte.

Before Gen. Abizaid pushed the same theme, Mr. Negroponte also demanded Mr. al-Maliki disband militias by year’s end — but was met with a flat rejection. Mr. al-Maliki told Mr. Negroponte such a move would be political suicide. Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, relies heavily on two major Shi’ite political groups that run the heavily armed militias.

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