Iraqi government defends security efforts but says it still needs help from U.S.
BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government defended its efforts to stabilize the country on the eve of a key U.S. progress report but said Sunday it needs more help and was not ready for a timetable on the withdrawal of American forces.
Iraq also issued a new appeal to neighboring countries to step up assistance at a conference that drew delegates from across the Middle East and representatives of the United States, the United Nations and the Group of Eight industrialized nations.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said bordering countries had been slow to fulfill promises to stem the flow of fighters and weapons into Iraq.
"There is movement but it has not reached the level we want or hope," he said.
He urged Syria and Jordan to ease restrictions on Iraqis trying to enter those countries. Today, Damascus is due to begin requiring visas for Iraqis entering the country for economic, trade and educational purposes. Iraqis near the border with Syria boarded buses and crammed their belongings into the luggage holds as they tried to beat the deadline.
"Iraq's failure means the failure of the whole region and no one, in my opinion, will win as a result of this," Zebari warned. "What is happening in Iraq and what will happen in Iraq will decide the future of this region."
The conference occurred a day before congressional hearings were to begin in Washington with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and top commander Gen. David Petraeus to deliver reports on Iraq's progress amid a debate over calls to start bringing American troops home.
The two are expected to point to some improvements in security since this year's troop buildup but say that progress toward power-sharing agreements among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has lagged.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraqi security forces have come far but need more time to prepare before they can take over their own security. He pointed to a decrease in the number of kidnappings and other sectarian attacks but gave no figures.
"We feel that there is progress on the security side, particularly in Baghdad," he said. When things get better and the security situation gets better the Iraqi government will be able to talk about a timetable," al-Dabbagh told reporters.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported that an American soldier was killed Sunday in fighting in western Baghdad. A Marine died Friday in Iraq's Anbar province in a non-combat related incident, the command said.
At least 35 Iraqis also were reported killed or found dead on Sunday, including 12 bullet-riddled bodies that were handcuffed and blindfolded and showed signs of torture.
The deadliest attack was a raid by gunmen against a police station that killed at least nine people. Police and witnesses said five policemen and four civilians were killed before the attackers were driven off with the help of residents in the predominantly Sunni village of Hajaj, some 155 miles north of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki argued that his Shiite-dominated government has made great strides since he took office in May 2003 promising to bring minority Sunnis into the political process and stem support for the insurgency.
"The Iraqi national unity government has achieved great victories in different fields as it works seriously to improve the economic situation, and has achieved major results despite the major economic destruction that we inherited from the former regime," he said in opening the so-called neighbors' conference.
Zebari warned the violence could spill across Iraq's borders into other nations.
"Terrorism should be fought ... because the fires that they are igniting in the land of the two rivers (Iraq) will spread outside the borders and endanger neighboring countries," he added.
He did not identify any country by name, but the Iraqi and U.S. governments have accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and say Iran is supplying Shiite militias with weapons -- claims that both countries deny.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Reza Baqiri said his country "wants to help in healing Iraq's wounds for humanitarian reasons" but gave mixed signals about Tehran's willingness to work with the U.S. to achieve stability in the country.
"The regional matters in our area should be solved in the hands of the governments, states and people of this region," he told reporters after the conference.
Referring to three previous direct meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials on Iraq's security, the Iranian official said: "Our love for Iraq made us sit at the same table with our enemy ... and if the Iraqi side asked us to sit on the table again, we will accept."
Security was extraordinarily tight in central Baghdad as the meeting took place at the Foreign Ministry complex with security forces blocking two main bridges linking the city's eastern and western sectors to all but official traffic.