- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LONDON — Coalition troops must stay in Iraq and not give way to defeatism or panic in the face of hostile public opinion, Iraq’s deputy prime minister said after meeting British leaders yesterday.

Iraqi forces will increasingly take over responsibility for the country’s stability from coalition troops, said Barham Saleh, an influential Kurd with long ties to the United States and Britain.

He urged officials to ignore an increasingly pessimistic tone in the debate over Iraq’s future.

“I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run,” Mr. Saleh said after talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair. “We need to understand that there is a need of utmost urgency to deal with many of the problems of Iraq, but we must not give in to panic.”

Mr. Saleh said he was concerned about what he described as the increasing acrimony in the international debate over Iraq.

“There is too much of a pessimistic tone to this debate — even I would say in certain circles a defeatist tone,” he told the British Broadcasting Corp. before meeting with Mr. Blair.

He said that Iraqi forces will be in control of seven or eight of Iraq’s 18 provinces by the end of the year, but that the presence of coalition troops remains crucial as local police and the military try to quell rising violence.

Shi’ite militiamen loyal to a fiery anti-American Shi’ite cleric re-emerged in the troubled southern city of Amarah yesterday, dragging four policemen aligned with a rival Shi’ite militia from their homes and killing them.

Iraq’s leaders sent a force of about 500 soldiers to the city late last week after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militiamen stormed the city and attacked police stations, manned primarily by loyalists of the rival Badr Brigades, also a Shi’ite militia.

At least 25 fighters and police died before politicians won a promise from the Mahdi Army gunmen to leave the streets. In the meantime, virtually all of the Amarah police force went into hiding.

Late yesterday, a U.S. soldier in Baghdad was reported missing, the U.S. military said. Other reports claimed he was an officer of Iraqi descent and was kidnapped.

A military official in Washington said the missing service member was an Army translator, and the initial report was that he may have been abducted.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military reported that a Marine had died in fighting in the restive western province of Anbar on Saturday, bringing the number of U.S. troops killed in October to 86 — the highest monthly toll since November 2004.

In Washington, the State Department said there were no plans to dismiss an official who told the Al Jazeera television network over the weekend that the U.S. had, at times, shown “arrogance and stupidity” in its handling of its operation in Iraq.

Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, issued a written apology on Sunday night for the remarks, which were made during an interview conducted in Arabic.

“He made it clear those remarks do not represent his personal views, and they certainly don’t represent the views of the State Department,” spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday. “So far as we’re concerned, the matter is closed.”

Asked whether Mr. Fernandez had been reprimanded for his remarks, Mr. McCormack would only say, “He’s still in his job.”

Mr. Saleh’s 30-minute meeting at Mr. Blair’s office in London came after defense officials and a senior British minister said that Iraqi forces could be given complete authority over southern Iraq within 12 months.

Mr. Blair’s office denied that he had pressed Mr. Saleh to draw up an exit timetable for British troops, but acknowledged that the talks were focused on ensuring that the handover of responsibility continues “as quickly as possible.”

“We haven’t set a deadline, we won’t set a deadline, we won’t set an arbitrary date,” said Mr. Blair’s official spokesman, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

British defense officials have repeatedly said they hope to hand over all security responsibilities in southern Iraq in 2007, cutting the number of troops based in the country from about 7,000 to between 3,000 and 4,000.

“We understand this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community,” Mr. Saleh told reporters. “At the end of the day, it is up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to establish security.”

He said his government could not set any timetable for assuming full control, but that it was “aware of the gravity and the seriousness of the situation and that the government of Iraq needs to assume more responsibility.”

• Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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