By Nelson Hernandez and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 22 -- The new Iraqi prime minister said Monday that his government would begin taking responsibility for the security of the country from foreign troops next month, with the goal of having Iraqi control of most provinces by the end of the year.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the Iraqi police and army would take control of two relatively stable provinces beginning in June. He said he hoped that all but two of Iraq's 18 provinces would be handed over to Iraqi control by December.
Blair declined to offer a specific timeline for handing over control, saying any shift depended on conditions on the ground. Instead, he praised the Iraqis for electing a democratic, constitutional government, saying they have given the country a chance to shape its own future and robbed insurgents of a reason to keep fighting.
"It's been three years of struggle to get to this point, and it's been longer and harder than any of us wanted it to be, but this is a new beginning," said Blair. The 8,000 British troops in Iraq are the second-largest contingent of foreign forces after the 133,000 U.S. troops now here.
"There is no vestige of an excuse for people to carry on with terror and bloodshed," Blair said. "If the worry of people is the presence of the multinational forces, it is the violence that keeps us here. If the worry of the people is the rule of law, the people should get behind the government and empower it."
A joint statement by Blair and Maliki, issued after the news conference, said that the process of transferring security powers "would start in some provinces in the coming months, and by the end of this year responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control."
Maliki had been more specific, telling reporters earlier that there had been an agreement to transfer security of Muthanna and Maysan provinces -- both have been relatively calm -- in June. He said the handover would be completed by the end of the year in the rest of the country, "except for Baghdad and maybe Anbar," a restive province where a U.S. Marine was killed Sunday.
But Maliki noted that Iraq's force of 264,000 soldiers and police officers was still being built up to a full strength of 325,000 men, and that "Iraq still needs more support."
Iraqi troops have already taken over patrolling duties in many calmer parts of the country, and U.S. commanders say the new Iraqi army conducts many small operations on its own. But overall control still belongs to foreign commanders, who have authority over the supplies and airpower that make large-scale operations possible.
The Arab League also extended diplomatic overtures to the new Iraqi government, saying it would send its first political delegation to the country since the fall of longtime ruler Saddam Hussein. The group would work with "all sides" -- including insurgent groups, presumably -- in advance of a conference on reconciliation, according to Mukhtar Lamani, the league's envoy to Iraq.
As Blair and Lamani made their rounds in Baghdad, at least 30 Iraqis were killed by bomb blasts in the capital, police said.
In the most severe incident, two car bombs exploded simultaneously at a busy market in a predominantly Shiite district of eastern Baghdad, killing 24 people, army Lt. Ahmad Jasim Hassan said. A police brigadier general, however, said 10 people had died in the attack.
There were checkpoints operated by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, on both sides of the busy market, which prevented the bombers from getting closer, Hassan said.
"I was at the checkpoint when the first car bomb went off at the other side of the market," said Fahad Khudhaiyer, a Mahdi Army militiaman. "At the same time, another car came close to the checkpoint that I was controlling, so I asked him to stay away, but he stopped the car and ran to the people. So I thought that he was running to rescue the people, but his car detonated. It was a huge blaze."
The explosions left the ground covered with broken glass, shrapnel and bodies. Flames licked the two cars, now blackened hulks of twisted steel. Angry crowds, accompanied by Mahdi Army members waving assault rifles, came to protest what had happened.
"We will show them terrorism today," they chanted.
The Mahdi Army was also out in force in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Monday night when two mortar shells landed near the residence of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who leads the militia. The shells hit 300 yards away, on a front yard used as a parking lot, but the attack prompted hundreds of armed supporters to gather at Sadr's house. Police commandos filled the streets, ready for a confrontation that never happened.
The trial of Hussein and seven co-defendants -- implicated in the killing in the 1980s of 148 people from the town of Dujail -- resumed as well.
The trial, which has been notably calmer since Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman took over in January, on Monday was the scene of a quarrel between Abdel Rahman and a defense attorney, Bushra al-Khalil, who during her last appearance in court was kicked out for showing pictures of the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
This time, after standing up and asking for clarification on court regulations, Khalil was told by the judge to sit down. She did not, and guards were ordered to remove her from the courtroom, even as she tried to slap them away.
"This is a gangster, not a lawyer," Abdel Rahman said after she had left.
Special correspondents Salih Saif Aldin, Bassam Sebti, Omar Fekeiki and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.