Iraqi president: Plan to take over security on track

Thursday, August 3, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Bombs exploded on a soccer field Wednesday killing 11 young people, and at least 42 other people -- two of them Americans -- died elsewhere in sectarian or political violence. Still, the president said plans are on track for Iraqis to take over security.

The surge in sectarian violence has prompted the U.S. command to send at least 3,700 American soldiers from the northern city of Mosul to reclaim the capital's streets from Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, rogue police, criminals and freelance gunmen.

Despite the violence, President Jalal Talabani said the government remains confident it can cope with the security crisis and vanquish extremist groups, calling recent attacks "the last arrows in their quivers."

"We are highly optimistic that we will terminate terrorism this year," Talabani said. "The Iraqi forces will take over security in all Iraqi provinces by the end of this year gradually, and, if it's God's will, we will take the lead."

Talabani's prediction was far rosier than those from U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials, and the president's staff quickly sought to explain that he was referring to the beginning of a "process" for Iraqis to assume control, not the final step.

The Iraqis have been given security responsibility in only one of 18 provinces -- Muthanna. It is a remote southern province with an overwhelmingly Shiite population and is among the most peaceful in the country.

"What he meant is that the process will be underway by the end of this year," said Talabani's media adviser, Hiwa Osman. "We are not expecting a complete hand-over by the end of this year -- nobody really is."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there are "too many variables" to make any kind of firm prediction about the hand-over of security.

"The Iraqi security forces are making great progress. Every week, every month, they get more capable," Whitman said at the Pentagon.

In London, Britain's top military official said he expected British troops to hand over control of the southern province of Basra to Iraqi security forces early next year.

"We are now on a good path to hand over provincial control of Basra some time in the first part of next year," Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of Britain's defense staff, told British Broadcasting Corp. "But these are difficult issues we are grappling with and I can't forecast what will happen over the next several months."

British forces in the south have been cracking down on Shiite militias, which infiltrated police ranks last year and wield considerable power in the city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest.

U.S. officials have been pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to disband the Shiite militias and make overtures to Sunni insurgent groups. However, the militias draw strength from the disorder they help create because many Iraqis are losing confidence in the police and army -- preferring to rely on gunmen from their own sect for protection.

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