Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that the Iraqi army and police are capable of keeping security in the country when American troops leave "any time they want," though he acknowledged the forces need further weapons and training.
The embattled prime minister sought to show confidence at a time when pressure in the U.S. Congress is growing for a withdrawal and the Bush administration reported little progress had been made on the most vital of a series of political reforms it wants al-Maliki to carry out.
Moreover, the Pentagon on Friday conceded that the Iraqi army has become more reliant on the U.S. military. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, said the number of Iraqi batallions able to operate on their own without U.S. support has dropped in recent months from 10 to six, though he said the fall was in part due to attrition from stepped-up offensives.
Al-Maliki made his first public comments on Thursday's White House report on the reforms, saying his government needed time to enact the political benchmarks that Washington seeks. He insisted it was "fairly natural" that progress would be difficult considering the violence in Iraq and the deep divisions among its leaders.
"We need time and effort, particularly since the political process is facing security, economic and services pressures, as well as regional and international interference," he told reporters at a Baghdad press conference, without giving a timeframe.
"These difficulties can be read as a big success, not negative points, when they are viewed under the shadow of the big challenges. That is what should be understood in the White House report," al-Maliki said.
The report fueled calls among congressional critics of the Iraqi policy for a change in strategy, including a withdrawal of American forces. The White House insists it is too early to call its strategy a failure.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned earlier this week of civil war and the collapse of the government if the Americans leave. But al-Maliki told reporters Saturday, "We say in full confidence that we are able, God willing, to take the responsibility completely in running the security file if the international forces withdraw at any time they want."
But he added that Iraqi forces are "still in need of more weapons and rehabilitation" to be ready in the case of a withdrawal.
In the White House strategy, beefed-up American forces have been waging intensified security crackdowns in Baghdad and areas to the north and south for nearly a month. The goal is to being quiet to the capital while al-Maliki enacts the political reforms, intended to give Sunni Arabs a greater role in the goverment and political process, lessening support for the insurgency.
But the benchmarks have been blocked by divisions among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds within al-Maliki's Cabinet. In August, the parliament is taking a one month vacation — a shorter break than the usual two months, but still enough to anger some in Congress who say lawmakers should push through reforms.
The divisions within al-Maliki's coalition are not only over the substance of the reforms, but also over separate disputes that have stalled even debate over such legislation as a draft bill to fairly distribute control over and profits from the vital oil sector.
Al-Maliki said some members of his coalition have not formed a "positive partnership" with the others. Al-Maliki has been talking for months of a Cabinet reshuffle that would shed Sunni and Shiite parties seen as obstructionist to form a "coalition of moderates" — though there's been no sign a change was imminent.
CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey reports that many Iraqis give short-shrift to Washington benchmarks, because they have more basic concerns.
"It's security and it's services, and 'services' really translates into electricity," says U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. "I think that is more important to the average Iraqi than all 18 benchmarks rolled up into one."
In Other Developments: Two American soldiers were killed Saturday in separate attacks in the Baghdad area, the U.S. military reported. One soldier assigned to Task Force Marne was killed when a land mine detonated during a foot patrol, the U.S. command said. The statement did not say where the attack took place. Task Force Marne operates in south Baghdad and in communities to the south and southeast of the capital. Another soldier was killed when an explosively-formed penetrator detonated near a U.S. patrol in east Baghdad, the command said; another soldier was wounded. On Saturday, the U.S. military said it captured an alleged high-level al Qaeda in Iraq cell leader at Baghdad's international airport. The suspect, believed to have organized mortar and roadside bomb attacks in the capital and nearby area, surrendered "without a struggle," the military said in a statement. It did not give details on the suspect or say whether he was travelling in or out of the country when siezed. An Iraqi translator for Reuters was shot to death in Baghdad, an apparent victim of sectarian death squads, Reuters reported on Saturday. The London-based news agency did not identify the translator at the request of relatives, apparently to avoid publicizing the family's link to the company. The 30-year-old translator was killed Wednesday while driving with two of his brothers in southeast Baghdad, an area where Shiite and Sunni militants operate. He had been working for the agency since March and was married with two young daughters. "It appears the killing was one of the dozens of executions carried out every day in Baghdad by sectarian death squads that roam the city despite the presence of some 100,000 U.S. and Iraqi security forces in the city," the agency said in its report on his death. The latest Reuters death brings to 151 the number of journalists and media support staffers - the majority of them Iraqis - killed since the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A suicide bomber hit cars lined up at a gas station in the southeastern district of Rashin Camp around 11:30 a.m., setting seven vehicles on fire and damaging nearby shops, a police official said. The blast killed seven civilians and wounded 15 others, the official said. Shortages force Iraqis to stay in line for hours to fill their vehicles or buy fuel for generators they rely on for power amid the capital's frequent electricity outages. Hours earlier, a parked car bomb detonated in the western neighborhood of Amil, reducing one apartment building to rubble and heavily damaging a second, another police official said. The 7:30 a.m. blast killed at least one person and wounded five others, and authorities were searching the wreckage for more victims, the official said. After the blast, several nearby cars were left damaged, and a metal crutch lay in the street next to a pool of blood, according to AP Television news footage of the scene. Senior Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi escaped unharmed Saturday when his convoy came under an attack by mortars and insurgent gunmen as he visited tribesmen in southern Iraq, a spokesman said. Chalabi was meeting with the tribesmen in the town of Madain, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, when the building came under mortar fire that landed near his entourage's cars outside, said Chalabi's spokesman Ayad Kazem Sabti. Chalabi and his delegation fled the building, and as they drove away in their convoy, gunmen opened fire on them, Sabti said. No one in his convoy was hurt, he said. A former prominent exile leader close to Washington, Chalabi was touted by some U.S. officials before the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein as a possible leader of Iraq, but he is widely mistrusted among Iraqis. Am adviser to al-Maliki said a fierce gunbattle on Friday between U.S. troops and Iraqi police that killed six policemen was the result of a misunderstanding. U.S. troops had seized a police lieutenant accused of links to Iranian-backed Shiite militants when it came under fire. Hassan al-Suneid, a legislator close to the prime minister, said American troops did not know a police checkpoint was nearby and "thought they were terrorists." He said Iraqi soldiers with the Americans also fired on the police. The U.S. military said Friday that it was the police at the checkpoint who opened fire on the Americans first, along with gunmen on nearby rooftops and at a church. U.S. troops called in warplanes for ground strikes, and six policemen and seven gunmen were killed.
The raid captured the lieutenant, who the military said was helping Iran organize Shiite militants and led a cell involved in bomb and mortar attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops. The military did not specify that the police who fired on the Americans were linked to militias as well but said the police maintained "heavy and accurate fire" on the U.S. troops.
The battle underscored the deep infiltration of Shiite militiamen in the police force. Purging the force is one of the benchmarks, and Thursday's report acknowledged progress in it has been "unsatisfactory."