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Maliki offers parliament an upbeat security assessment

Times Staff Writer

Hours before congressional hearings on the progress of the U.S. military buildup, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki addressed his own parliament Monday, saying security had improved dramatically in the capital and Iraq was moving away from civil war.

Maliki gave an optimistic assessment of his country’s progress since the U.S. military buildup began in February, foreshadowing testimony later in the day in Washington by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

“We have been successful in preventing Iraq from sliding into civil war, which was threatening our dear country,” Maliki said in a speech broadcast live in Iraq. “We are sure that national reconciliation is our only option -- that it will take Iraq to safety. Despite disturbances made by some of the sides, local and foreign, the mission has been successful.”

Afterward, he fielded questions from the 275-member parliament that underscored divisions in his country. Lawmakers questioned his leadership, the effectiveness of his government and the U.S.-led strategy to bring peace here.

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“We have to admit openly that the national unity government is a failure and start working from there,” said Safia Suhail, an opposition party member.

Sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as well as among rival Shiite groups, has claimed thousands of lives and stalled political progress.

Nearly half the members of Maliki’s Cabinet have quit since the spring, in part because security forces have been unable to quell sectarian violence that has driven Iraqis from their homes, including an estimated 2 million who have become refugees in neighboring countries.

“What progress are you talking about, Mr. Prime Minister?” asked Shadha Mousawi of the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite Arab bloc in Maliki’s government.

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“I am originally a resident of west Baghdad, Adel and Jamia. None of the displaced families there have returned. Those few who have dared try to return were immediately targeted and assassinated.”

Others questioned the use of armed citizen groups to provide security, arguing that these same Iraqis could easily turn against the government and each other. Armed bands of so-called concerned local citizens, abbreviated as CLC, are now routinely mentioned in U.S. military news releases as active combatants against extremist groups.

“The Iraqi government is not arming the tribes as alleged,” Maliki said. “The tribes are providing volunteers for police and armed forces in their various regions. Only after allowing them into these establishments do we provide them with weapons.”

Maliki suggested that it was too early to withdraw U.S. troops, which have increased by 28,500 to more than 160,000 since President Bush announced the buildup in January.

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“Despite improved security, we still realize we need more time and effort so our security forces can take security [responsibilities] from multinational forces,” he said.

Maliki said violence had fallen 75% in Baghdad since the troop buildup began, a statistic that was difficult to confirm. The Iraqi government does not provide official totals of war-related civilian deaths, but official sources indicate that killings from bombs and sectarian violence have decreased somewhat nationwide, from 2,076 deaths in January to 1,773 last month.

A truck bomb that exploded outside Mosul in the north of Iraq killed eight people and injured 20 others Monday. And a car bomb at the Khark Jomhoury hospital in north Baghdad killed two people and injured five others.

Maliki’s assertion of a dramatic fall in violence did not appear to match the impression of most Iraqis. A national poll of Iraqis released Monday by ABC News, the BBC and Japan’s NHK broadcasting found that 70% of respondents said they believed the increase in U.S. troop strength has made security worse, and another 11% said they believed it has had no impact.

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“I ask that you don’t get carried away with the media’s exaggeration regarding the current situation, both politically and on security,” Maliki told members of parliament.

To underscore security improvements, the government announced the easing of curfew restrictions in Baghdad for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week. Residents will be allowed outside until midnight instead of 11 p.m.

Ramadan calls for fasting during the day, and most families break their fast with dinners that linger into the late hours.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Said Rifai, Wail Alhafith and Usama Redha and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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