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IRAQI PREMIER WANTS MORE CONTROL OVER HIS MILITARY

Times Staff Writers

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki will push for the U.S. military to relinquish control over his nation’s security forces when he meets President Bush today to discuss a strategy to quell raging violence in Iraq, aides and political insiders said Tuesday.

Frustrated by U.S. accusations that he isn’t doing enough, Maliki says his hands are tied as long as he does not have the authority to deploy forces as he sees fit. He wants Bush to accelerate the training of the army and police, fund more recruits and provide them with bigger and better weapons, lawmakers briefed by Maliki said.

The prime minister also will insist at the two-day summit in Jordan that his government should drive negotiations with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria, they said.

Maliki’s emboldened stand comes at a time of uncertainty for U.S. strategy in Iraq. Bush is under pressure to make changes after Democrats swept the midterm congressional election on a wave of unhappiness about the war’s results.

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Bush is waiting for recommendations from a bipartisan commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), which Tuesday continued work on its final report.

Democrats want Bush to set a timeline to start reducing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. But Bush maintained Tuesday that there was no possibility of an immediate pullout.

“There’s one thing I’m not going to do,” he said during an afternoon speech in Riga, Latvia, where he was attending a NATO summit. “I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is completed.”

Bush is also under pressure to enlist the help of Iran and Syria in curbing the bloodshed. But he ruled out direct negotiation with Iran unless it halts a uranium enrichment program that potentially could be used to produce nuclear weapons.

While the United States considers its options, Maliki’s government has opened direct talks with both countries.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was in Tehran on Tuesday, securing promises of assistance from his counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also has accepted an invitation to visit Syria, said his spokesman, Hiwa Osman, reached by telephone in Tehran.

The comments came on the eve of a hastily arranged summit in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where King Abdullah II will hold talks with Bush and Maliki after a week of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq’s civil war.

At least 215 people were killed in coordinated car bombings Thursday in a Shiite Muslim slum of Baghdad, a stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia. Hundreds more died in days of reprisal attacks, as Shiite and Sunni militiamen pounded neighborhoods with mortar rounds and gunfire.

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As the toll grew, Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide directed their anger at the United States and demanded an immediate pullout.

“If the Americans withdraw, the fighting will stop,” Iraq’s most revered Sunni cleric, Harith Dhari, said in Jordan, where he met with Abdullah in the run-up to the summit. “Once Americans make the decision to withdraw, whether it is in one or two years, we can go to the resistance and tell them you have what you have been fighting for.”

But other Sunnis trapped in Baghdad’s strife-torn neighborhoods said they had no one besides the Sunni fighters to turn to for protection. They accused Iraq’s Shiite-dominated police force of turning a blind eye to sectarian death squads and even colluding with them.

Sunnis are likely to find threatening any consolidation of security forces in Maliki’s hands.

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Adnan Dulaimi, head of the Sunni bloc in parliament, found himself calling for U.S. help when gunmen attacked his home over the weekend.

“I think that without the Americans, there will be a security vacuum and the result will be civil war,” he said Tuesday.

Sadr’s political representatives threatened last week to pull out of parliament and the Cabinet if Maliki met with Bush, a move that could precipitate the collapse of a painfully crafted government drawing in representatives of Iraq’s main ethnic and religious groups. By Tuesday, however, they had softened their stance.

“We will wait until we have the visit and then we will examine the situation: Are there any benefits or good results for the Iraqi people?” said Nassar Rubaie, a spokesman for Sadr’s political bloc. “Then we will discuss it and eventually decide” whether to pull out.

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Bush said he intended to ask questions of Maliki, rather than offer his own solutions.

“My questions to him will be: What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?” Bush told reporters in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, en route to the Riga summit.

Maliki insiders said the prime minister’s answer would be to tell U.S. commanders to give the Iraqi government full control over its security forces.

“This will not happen overnight; it needs a lot of preparation,” said Haider Abadi, a lawmaker from Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party. “We need to build our forces, we need to train them, we need to arm them properly.... But if we can achieve a timeline, we will have achieved a lot.”

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U.S. and Iraqi officials also expect to discuss Talabani’s visit to Iran. Khamenei on Tuesday blamed American policies for the violence in Iraq and told Talabani that Iran considered it a “religious and humane duty” to help establish security in the neighboring country, according to his office’s website.

Bush is expected to press Maliki to deliver on promises to disarm Shiite militias, including Sadr’s Al Mahdi army and the rival Badr Brigade, which are linked to key members of the political bloc that put the prime minister in power.

But Abadi and other officials close to Maliki ruled out military action against the militias.

“Unfortunately, you cannot disarm militias when your population feels the Iraqi security forces and the multinational forces are not doing enough to protect them from terrorists,” he said. “This will result in the collapse of the government.”

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He said the government would seek a political solution to the problem of private armies and focus on cleaning up its security forces, which officials acknowledge have been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have been vague about any expected outcome from the meeting, a silence that appeared to inspire little confidence among Iraqis reeling from last week’s carnage.

“I don’t think any good will come out of this meeting,” said Kareem abu Karrar, whose world was upended when a car bomb exploded in the busy intersection where he sells electrical goods. He saw friends ripped to pieces and watched in a daze as a minivan packed with passengers flew through the air.

“We are now used to not expecting any good from Bush or Maliki,” he said, “because we learned that after every attempt for national reconciliation, the exact opposite happens.”

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zavis@latimes.com

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Zavis reported from Baghdad and Wallsten from Riga. Times staff writers Said Rifai and Raheem Salman in Baghdad, special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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