- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s military is drawing up plans on how to cope if U.S.-led forces leave the country quickly, the defense minister said yesterday.

The statement by Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi marked the first time a senior Iraqi official has spoken publicly about the possibility of a quick end to the U.S.-led mission.

It was not clear whether the remarks reflected anything more than routine contingency planning.

“The army plans on the basis of a worst-case scenario so as not to allow any security vacuum,” Mr. al-Obeidi said. “There are meetings with political leaders on how we can deal with a sudden pullout.”

White House officials are negotiating with Democratic leaders in Congress over a war-spending bill for Iraq. President Bush vetoed the first version because it set timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Last week, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said senators in both parties were frustrated with the Iraqi government’s lack of progress in meeting political goals and reconciling the country’s religious and ethnic groups.

However, Mr. Bush expressed confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a telephone call from his ranch in Texas, Bush spokesman Tony Fratto said.

“The president reaffirmed his confidence in the prime minister and noted the courage that he has shown in a challenging and difficult year,” Mr. Fratto said.

“Obviously, we want the Iraqis and the Iraqi parliament to move as quickly as possible,” Mr. Fratto said. “Progress on advancing these initiatives is not moving as quickly as anyone wants — and I think that includes Prime Minister Maliki and many members of parliament.”

Meanwhile, gunmen in two cars attacked a minibus heading to Baghdad from a Shi’ite town north of the capital yesterday, killing seven passengers, including a child, police said.

A mortar shell hit the roof of the parliament building inside the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, but no one was injured, a lawmaker said.

And thousands of soldiers continued combing through fields and questioning suspects as the search for three missing American soldiers continued following a May 12 ambush south of Baghdad that killed four other soldiers and their interpreter.

The minibus, which left the town of Khalis, was driving near the violence-racked city of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, when it was ambushed outside the town of Hibhib, police said.

In western Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded near a group of Iraqi soldiers patrolling the Sunni-dominated Adil neighborhood, killing three of the soldiers and injuring two.

The U.S. military reported Sunday that six American soldiers on patrol in Baghdad were killed in a roadside bombing along with their interpreter on Saturday. A seventh soldier died in a blast Saturday in Diwaniya, a mostly Shi’ite city 80 miles south of the capital, where radical Shi’ite militias operate.

Those deaths brought the number of American troops killed in Iraq since Friday to at least 15 — eight of them in Baghdad. So far, at least 71 American troops have died in Iraq this month — most of them from roadside bombs.

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