Iraq government praised

Bush, Blair laud actions by al-Maliki, refuse to set pullout schedule

May 23, 2006|By LOUISE ROUG | LOUISE ROUG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush hailed the new Iraqi government as a pivotal achievement yesterday, both expressing optimism that it would hasten an end to the conflict that has harmed their domestic popularity but stopping short of tying it to a timetable for drawing down troops.

Blair, in a surprise visit to Baghdad, said the formation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was "a new beginning," while Bush, speaking in Chicago, called it "a turning point" for Iraq.

Blair met with Iraqi officials yesterday and discussed British troop withdrawal and the deteriorating security situation in the southern city of Basra, where the British are based.

However, at a news conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Blair refused to set a timetable for British withdrawal, saying it would be "governed by conditions on the ground."

"There is now no vestige of excuse to carry on with terrorism and bloodshed," Blair said. "If the worry of people is the presence of the multinational forces, it is the violence that keeps us here. It is the peace that will allow us to go."

Bush, in a speech to a restaurant group, said Iraq now had a "free government under a democratic constitution, and its formation marked a victory for the cause of freedom in the Middle East."

He promised, as he has before, that "as the new Iraqi government grows in confidence and capability, America will play an increasingly supporting role."

But, he said, "the way forward will bring more days of challenge and loss."

In coming months, Iraqi security forces are scheduled to assume authority in several provinces, beginning in the south, al-Maliki told reporters after the meetings with Blair, adding that there are plans for Iraqis to take control of most of the country's 18 provinces by the end of this year.

As Blair met with dignitaries inside the palaces of the Green Zone, two car bombs killed at least seven people and wounded 10 others in the capital. The U.S. military said yesterday that a Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 had been killed in Anbar province the previous day.

One bomb in the capital went off about 10:30 a.m. near a medical center in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City, killing three. An hour later, the other bomb struck near a market in the southeastern neighborhood of Zaafaraniya. That explosion killed four, setting fire to several nearby shops and cars, police and hospital officials said.

Also yesterday, gunmen shot and killed Hameed Rodhan, a high-ranking official in the ministry of youth, in the Saydiya neighborhood in southern Baghdad. In a separate incident elsewhere in the capital, armed men shot Brig. Gen. Nadum Hussein, who died in the hospital. Police in the disputed city of Kirkuk said gunmen kidnapped the 15-year-old daughter of a neighborhood mayor.

Al-Maliki has said the new government will use "maximum force against the terrorists and criminals" and has reiterated the need for the dismantling of Iraq's militias. But he has still not named key security officials, including ministers for interior and defense. Pentagon officials said yesterday that they were keeping a close eye on those appointments.

Thousands of civilians have died in sectarian and tribal violence so far this year. Most have been killed in Baghdad. But tensions have also flared in other provinces around the country, as previously quiet Shiite areas have hardened against the presence of foreign troops.

Blair, meanwhile, is struggling with waning public support. In a recent government reshuffle, he appointed Des Browne as the new defense secretary. Last week, Browne visited Basra, acknowledging to reporters that violence had increased there recently.

With about 8,000 troops in the country, Britain is the second-largest partner in the U.S.-led coalition.

"It's been three years of struggle to get to this point," Blair said at the news conference in Baghdad. "It's been longer and harder than anyone of us would have wanted it to be. This is a new beginning. And we want to see what you want to see - Iraq and the Iraqi people take charge of their own destiny, to write the next chapter of Iraq's history themselves."

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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