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Iraqi leaders warn against quick American pullout
BAGHDAD -- Iraqi leaders warned Monday the country could collapse if American troops leave too quickly as pressure mounts in Washington to draw down U.S. combat forces. More threats to Iraqi stability could be looming to the north with Turkish forces gathering in a possible prelude to a cross-border attack against Kurdish rebels.
IThe White House said President Bush is not considering a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq now despite an erosion of support among Republicans for his war policy.
Three prominent Republicans -- Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, George Voinovich of Ohio and Pete Domenici of New Mexico -- have announced they can no longer support Bush's Iraq strategy and have called on the president to start reducing the military's role here.
That drew a sharp response from Iraq's foreign minister, who warned that a speedy U.S. military withdrawal could lead to all-out civil war, the collapse of the government and spread conflict across the Middle East.
"We have held discussion with members of Congress and explained to them the dangers of a quick pullout and leaving a security vacuum," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters. "The dangers could be a civil war, dividing the country, regional wars and the collapse of the state."
That sentiment was echoed by leading political figures from the Sunni Arab community, the group that had been the least supportive of the U.S. presence following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government in 2003.
"A hasty withdrawal ... would lead to a crisis that would obliterate all the positive aspects of the U.S. troop deployment," said Salim Abdullah, spokesman for the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament.
Sunni legislator Adnan al-Dulaimi said a quick U.S. departure would "destroy Iraq" and that the American presence was necessary to "keep a balance between Iraqi sects" after the wave of Shiite-Sunni reprisal killings which plunged the country to the brink of all-out civil war last year.
"These [U.S.] forces have to stay until [the establishment of] an army and security forces ... capable of achieving peace in all parts of Iraq," al-Dulaimi said.
Adding to security concerns, Zebari said 140,000 Turkish soldiers have massed at Iraq's northern border, where the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has bases and launches attacks on Turkish forces.
"Turkey's fears are legitimate, but such things can be discussed," said Zebari, a Kurd from northern Iraq. "The perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders."
The Turkish military had no comment on Zebari's remarks, and it was unclear where he got the figures. If they are accurate, Turkey would have nearly as many soldiers along its border with Iraq as the 155,000 troops which the United States has in the country.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there was "a substantial presence" of Turkish troops engaged in counterterrorism operations in southeast Turkey near Iraq, and that such a deployment was not unusual when the PKK traditionally goes on the offensive in the spring. He also expressed skepticism about the 140,000 figure.
"I would steer you away from that number of troops being immediately along the border," McCormack said.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman repeated U.S. hopes that Turkey would not launch an incursion into Iraq.
"With respect to Turkey and the border region, they have legitimate concerns about terrorist activity of the PKK," Whitman said. "We've been working with them and recognize that problem that exists there. But we're also encouraging them that an incursion into Iraq is not the way to solve this."
U.S. commanders insist they have been making progress in restoring peace to Baghdad and in building up Iraqi security forces. After three years of U.S. training, however, the Iraqi army remains incapable of operating on its own, U.S. officials say.
Iraq's police force is believed heavily infiltrated by Shiite militiamen.
Violence in Baghdad on Monday left 38 people dead, police said. North of the capital, a roadside bomb hit a bus carrying Iraqi soldiers, killing nine, and a volley of mortars hit a Sunni neighborhood in the Sunni-Shiite town of Tarmiyah, killing eight, police said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Weaknesses in Iraqi security forces became starkly evident Saturday when a huge truck bomb devastated the public market in the Turkoman Shiite town of Armili, north of Baghdad. More than 160 people were killed, according to the latest toll from police and officials.
Armili residents shouted insults at the governor of Salahuddin province, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, and the provincial police chief as they visited for funerals of the victims, police and other officials said.
Shagti had detained the Armili police chief and put him under investigation for security failures. Shagti told The Associated Press that 250 new police were sent to Armili -- a town of 26,000 that one Turkoman lawmaker said had only 30 policemen before the attack.
Turkoman leaders accused the Iraqi security forces of "negligence" and called for the arming of their community.
"We demand the Iraqi government form Turkoman military units to protect Turkoman areas and their surroundings," said Ali Hashim Mukhtaroglu, deputy head of the main Turkoman political party. The town has long had tensions between Shiites and Sunnis.
Progress in forging political unity has been even slower because of failure to agree on power-sharing "benchmark" legislation. They include bills to share the country's oil wealth, reform the constitution to meet Sunni aspirations and allow many former Saddam supporters to get their government jobs back.
But the legislation is stalled because of fundamental differences among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties. Both Sunnis and the Shiite faction loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are boycotting the Cabinet and parliament over different issues.
As a result, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government barely functions.