Iraq President Says US Troops To Stay

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, right, and the Head of US Central Command, General John Abizaid, address a press conference after their meeting, in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 4. Abizaid said he was "very, very pleased with the reaction of the Iraqi armed forces" during the violence that broke out after the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra and reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslims that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. AP

President Jalal Talabani on Saturday underscored the need for a unity government in Iraq after a spasm of sectarian killing and said he had been assured U.S. forces would remain in the country as long as needed, "no matter what the period."

His comments came after a bomb attack at a minibus terminal in a southeastern Baghdad suburb killed seven people and wounded 25, one of a string of explosions in the capital and elsewhere.

The violence shattered the relative calm brought by Fridays' driving ban in Baghdad and its outskirts, which helped avert major attacks on the day Muslims congregate for the most important prayer service of the week.

Talabani spoke to reporters after meeting with Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, who was visiting Baghdad.

Abizaid said he was "very, very pleased with the reaction of the Iraqi armed forces" during the crisis unleashed by the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra and reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslims that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

"We should understand that the terrorists are trying to create problems among the Iraqi people that can lead to difficulties between various groups," he said after a separate meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. "We should not fall into their trap. We are stronger than they are. We will ultimately prevail."

The surge of attacks, which have killed at least 500 people since last week, has tangled negotiations to form a new government after December parliamentary elections and threatened American hopes of starting a troop pullout this summer.

In other developments:

  • The bus terminal blast occurred at the height of the morning rush, setting three minibuses on fire and damaging nearby market stands, police said. The attack struck in a region where 19 people were killed when gunmen stormed an electricity substation and brick factory Thursday night.

  • Another bombing targeted an Interior Ministry special forces patrol in the Salman Pak area, 12 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing two commandos and wounding two others, police said.

  • In Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital, a bomb exploded in a busy commercial area near a shop that repairs radios and tape players, killing a young girl and injuring eight other people, police said.

  • In the south, a Shiite lawmaker was seriously wounded when gunmen in two speeding cars fired on his vehicle near Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. An aide for Qasim Attiyah al-Jbouri was killed and two bodyguards injured, police Capt. Mushtaq Kadhim said.

    The attack against al-Jbouri, the former head of Basra's provincial council who ran for parliament on the United Iraqi Alliance slate, was the second in 10 days. Gunmen on Feb. 24 kidnapped three of his children but freed them unharmed hours later.

  • Police also found at least four more handcuffed, shot-up bodies dumped in Baghdad and south of the capital.

  • U.S. officials tell CBS News that intelligence has picked up reports that al Qaeda in Iraq is planning what one source calls the "Big Bang," a spectacular terrorist attack in Iraq against either a single high-profile target or multiple targets simultaneously. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi seems to be betting that another big bang would push the country over the brink, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. The bomb in one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims set off violence all across the country that left hundreds dead.

  • President Bush is set to meet with top military commanders next week, just as the escalating violence in Iraq threatens to complicate the goal of withdrawing more troops this year. So far, there have been no decisions on future troop withdrawals.
    Talabani said Abizaid assured him that U.S. forces "are ready to stay as long as we ask them, no matter what the period is."

    Talabani said Abizaid also stressed that "a strong national unity government made up of all blocs in parliament will help in stabilizing Iraq and bringing peace."

    However, Talabani said his Kurdish followers and their allies will fight against a second term for al-Jaafari.

    Sunni, Kurdish and some secular politicians have asked the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, to nominate another candidate. They accuse al-Jaafari of failing to rein in attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics in the aftermath of the bombing of the Shiite Askariya shrine.

    "With all our respect to Dr. al-Jaafari, we asked them to choose a candidate who is unanimously agreed on by Iraqis," Talabani said. "I want to be clear, it is not against Dr. al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years. What we want is consensus."

    Al-Jaafari's supporters in the United Iraqi Alliance have vowed to resist moves to replace him. But other Shiite leaders are troubled by his close ties to radical young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support was key to al-Jaafari's nomination by a single vote in a Feb. 12 Shiite caucus.

    Two lawmakers from al-Jaafari's Dawa party and a senior aide to the prime minister visited the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Saturday to seek the endorsement of Iraq's most revered Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

    "His eminence stressed two points: first, the importance of the Alliance, its survival and its unity, and second, the necessity of adhering to the decisions that came out of the Alliance," lawmaker Jawad al-Maliki said after the meeting.

    The trio also met with al-Sadr.

    Hundreds demonstrated Saturday in Najaf and Amarah, in Iraq's southern Shiite heartland, in support of al-Jaafari's bid for another term.

    Iraqi soldiers and police — backed in one neighborhood by a Shiite militia the United States wants disbanded — enforced a driving ban that brought relative peace to Baghdad streets Friday.

    The militia that kept order was al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the same force accused of going on a rampage of reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslim mosques and clerics after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra.

    In a teleconference briefing with reporters in Washington on Friday, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, said the militias were "a long-term challenge, a long-term problem and there's no silver-bullet."

    Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said Saturday his ministry was making progress integrating militiamen into government structures. Some are joining the country's security forces, but most will be given jobs in government departments, and those over 50 will retire, he said at a news briefing.

    Sunni Arab politicians accuse militiamen operating within the ranks of Jabr's Shiite-led ministry of kidnapping and killing their people under the cover of fighting the Sunni-dominated insurgency, charges Jabr denied.
    • Joel Roberts

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