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Jaafari says Iraqi troops ready to control some cities

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi troops are ready to take control of some cities as a first step toward sending home American and other foreign soldiers, Iraq's prime minister said yesterday. But he rejected any timetable for a pullout.

Underscoring the ongoing security crisis, gunmen killed four Iraqi human rights activists in Baghdad, a car bomb killed at least three people in the northern city of Kirkuk, and a US soldier died of wounds suffered in a land mine explosion.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari warned against setting a timetable for foreign troops to leave ''at a time when we are not ready" to confront the insurgents.

But he said security in many of Iraq's 18 provinces -- notably in the Shi'ite south and the Kurdish-controlled north -- has improved so that Iraqi forces could assume the burden of maintaining order in cities there.

''We can begin with the process of withdrawing multinational forces from these cities to outside the city as a first step that encourages setting a timetable for the withdrawal process," Jaafari said at a news conference with US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. ''We don't want to be surprised by a decision to withdraw at a time when we are not ready."

Jaafari's comments were aimed partly at defusing growing calls by Sunni Arabs and others for the Americans to set a date to leave Iraq. The prime minister, a Shi'ite, told parliament yesterday that he wants any withdrawal plan to be ''an Iraqi decision with an Iraqi timetable -- not with a terror timetable."

Most of the 135,000 American troops are based in insurgent strongholds deemed too dangerous to hand over to the Iraqis soon.

Zoellick said that Washington was committed to supporting the new Iraqi leadership and that US troop strength ''will be based on the conditions by which the Iraqi forces are able to meet the effort to deal with the counterinsurgency."

However, the Defense Department wants to pull some troops out of Iraq next year, partly because the commitment is stretching the Army and Marine Corps thin as casualties mount. US commanders believe the presence of a large US force is generating tacit support for anti-American violence.

Last weekend, The Mail on Sunday newspaper of London published a leaked British government memorandum showing that Britain is considering scaling back its troops from 8,500 to 3,000 by the middle of next year. The memo also spoke of a ''strong US military desire for significant force reductions" after a new Iraqi government is elected in December.

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