- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told lawmakers today that Iraqi forces were not ready to take over security from the U.S. military across the country.

“There have been tangible improvements in security in the recent period in Baghdad and the provinces but it is not enough,” he told parliament.

“Despite the security improvement, we still need more efforts and time in order for our armed forces to be able to take over security in all Iraqi provinces from the multinational forces that helped us in a great way in fighting terrorism and outlaws.”

Al-Maliki made the comment hours before U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, were to appear before Congress to deliver reports on Iraq’s progress amid a debate over calls for President Bush to bring American troops home.

They were widely expected to maintain that this year’s troop buildup has reduced violent attacks in Baghdad and argue for more time to restore security.

Al-Maliki said that violence had dropped 75 percent in the Baghdad area since the U.S. began pouring in additional troops at the start of the year. He gave no figures.

“The key to reconstruction, economic development and improving peoples’ standard of living is security,” he said.

Still, attacks in the capital have picked up in the days before the report and as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears, a time when violence usually spikes higher.

Two U.S. soldiers died today, the U.S. military reported. One died from injuries sustained yesterday while on patrol in the Kirkuk area in northern Iraq, while the other was killed — and two more were injured — east of Baghdad in a non-combat incident when their vehicle overturned and caught fire.

Before dawn today, U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters killed three civilians in the Shiite slum of Sadr City in a raid on the home of a suspected militia leader, police and residents said.

Ground forces searched four houses in the raid but failed to find the suspect, said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. spokesman. He identified the suspect only as “a criminal militia special group commander,” a term associated with splinter factions of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Meanwhile, a bomb blew up around noon near the Shiite Buratha mosque in northern Baghdad, killing two civilians and wounding six, police said.

In northern Iraq, about 50 miles west of Mosul, a suicide car bomber targeting a Kurdish peshmerga militia headquarters near Tal Afar killed eight people and injured 20 others, Tal Afar Mayor Najim Abdullah said. The Iraqi army had reported the suicide bomber hit the headquarters, but Abdullah said guards opened fire on the speeding car and it had detonated some 100 yards away, and that the casualties were civilians.

Amid the violence, al-Maliki was called before parliament to give his own assessment of the security situation. Despite intense U.S. pressure to move ahead with 18 benchmark laws — including one that will allow for the reintegration of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party into political life and another on oil revenue sharing — none has yet been taken up by parliament for discussion.

The so-called de-Baathification draft law was finally presented by al-Maliki’s Cabinet to parliament today, and the legislature scheduled discussion to begin on it next week, said Wissam al-Zubaidi, an adviser to deputy parliament speaker Khaled al-Attiyah.

Although his government has been widely criticized for failing to bridge sectarian divides, al-Maliki insisted progress had been made.

“We have achieved success in preventing Iraq from going into sectarian war and I am fully confident that national reconciliation is our only way that takes Iraq into safety,” al-Maliki said.

Salim Abdullah al-Jubouri, a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, agreed with al-Maliki’s assessment of the security situation.

“The Iraqi security forces are not yet ready for filling the security gap that would follow a possible U.S. troop withdrawal,” al-Jubouri told Associated Press in a phone interview. “Iraqi forces might be able to face such a state after a certain period of time if they would be properly equipped and prepared.”

But politically, al-Jubouri said al-Maliki did not address the real issues in his comments.

“He should have better emphasized the civil peace and national reconciliation, and on how a successful political process should be realized,” He said. “There are many demands which have not been fulfilled or looked into by the Maliki government.”

In the U.S. raid on Sadr City, troops came under fire while moving into the search area and as they departed and fired back, Bleichwehl said.

Al-Sadr late last month declared a “freeze” on his Mahdi Army’s activities so that the militia could regroup, but the U.S. has said breakaway factions over which al-Sadr has no control have continued to fight.

“Coalition forces returned proportional and precise fire on the enemy while being engaged,” Bleichwehl said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The unit sustained no casualties and there are no reports of civilian casualties.”

But residents showed AP Television News the coffins of the people they said were killed in the raid — a woman and her two daughters. Residents lifted the blanket from inside one of the simple wood coffins to show the bodies of two little girls lying next to each other.

A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, confirmed the woman and two girls were killed in the firefight.

“Neither the government protects us nor does Bush defend us,” lamented resident Abu Ali. “What shall we do?”

In the Sunni city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi troops got into a firefight with suspected al Qaeda in Iraq fighters in a morning assault. Twelve of the insurgents were killed and three U.S. soldiers were wounded, the military said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces came under heavy from insurgents inside buildings while clearing the area, the military said. The ground forces returned fire, while AH-64 Apache helicopters provided support from the air.

Three al Qaeda suspects were also detained, while a fourth person at the scene was identified as a hostage being held for ransom.

The injured soldiers were taken to Balad Air Base for treatment and were all in stable condition, the U.S. military said.

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