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Iraq prime minister, US commander meet

They discuss Syria, halt to violence

BAGHDAD -- The US Central Command chief confronted Iraq's prime minister yesterday over how Iraqi forces would halt raging violence and signaled a possible prelude to shifts in American policy on engaging Iran and Syria.

The meeting came as sectarian attacks killed at least 90 people throughout Iraq, 46 of them showing signs of torture. The US military announced the deaths of four American soldiers.

General John Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, warned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he must disband Shi'ite militias and give the United States proof that they were disarmed, according to senior Iraqi government officials with knowledge of what the two men discussed.

One of the militias, the Mahdi Army, is loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Last night, US forces raided the homes of Sadr's followers and US jets fired rockets on their northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Shula, residents said. Police said five residents were killed, though a senior Sadr aide put the death toll at nine. The US military said it had no comment.

In their meeting, Abizaid also asked the Iraqi leader to give the US military a firm timetable for when Iraq's security forces could take full control of the country, the officials said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.

Maliki has been pressing the United States to move faster to hand security affairs over to his army, saying it could crush violence in the country within six months. Yesterday, Abizaid asked the prime minister to give a detailed explanation of how he would do that. The top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, recently said it would take 12 to 18 months before Iraqi security forces were ready to control the country with some US backup.

US officials did not respond to requests for comment on yesterday's meeting.

But a brief statement by the Iraqi government said Abizaid told Maliki he had come to "reaffirm President Bush's commitment" to success in this country. It also said the two discussed the "effect of neighboring countries on the security situation in Iraq," a clear reference to Iran and Syria.

The reference to Iraq's neighbors coincided with a call by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain for Iran and Syria to help stem bloodshed in Iraq and to join efforts to stabilize the Middle East.

In a major foreign policy speech last night, Blair warned there would be no incentives or concessions for doing so, and that any failure to assist would lead to international isolation for the two countries.

Blair was set to speak with the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission, by video-link today. Britain has been the Bush administration's key ally in the Iraq war and has about 7,000 forces in the country.

The Syrian ambassador to Washington affirmed a readiness to work with the United States.

"We in Syria believe that engagement with the United States on Iraq can help a lot because we believe that we need to stabilize the situation in Iraq and support the political process there," Imad Moustapha told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Washington and Baghdad charge Syria with doing too little to prevent foreign fighters, especially Al Qaeda operatives, from crossing its border into Iraq. Beyond that, top members of Saddam Hussein's former regime have found safe haven in Syria, where they have operated freely in helping to fund and organize the Sunni insurgency that is responsible for the vast majority of US deaths in Iraq.

As for Iran, many of the key figures in Iraq's now-dominant Shi'ite hierarchy spent years in exile there during Hussein 's rule. One Shi'ite militia was trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Iran is known to fund that militia and the one loyal to Sadr. Both are believed to be deeply involved in the sectarian killing that is tipping Iraq toward all-out civil war.

Abizaid met with Maliki a day after the Iraqi leader promised to shake up his government in a bid to end the sectarian slaughter.

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