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Iraqi leader says security forces key to US withdrawal

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (right) gestured as he spoke yesterday with the heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Iraq, during a meeting in the fortified Green Zone area of Baghdad. (Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP/Getty Images))

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government's need for US troops would "dramatically go down" in three to six months if the United States sped up the process of equipping and arming Iraq's security forces, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday.

The head of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-led government defended his country's independence and sovereignty and called on US leaders to show faith in his ability to lead.

Maliki disputed President Bush's remarks broadcast Tuesday that the execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein "looked like it was kind of a revenge killing," and took exception to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Senate testimony last week that Maliki's administration was on "borrowed time."

Statements such as Rice's "give morale boosts for the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort and making them believe they have defeated the American administration," the prime minister said. "But I can tell you that they have not defeated the Iraqi government."

Speaking through an interpreter to a group of reporters for an hour in his offices in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Maliki found several ways to say that Iraq is beholden to no country. He defended Iraq's constitutional right to the death penalty, its commitment to dialogue with Iran and Syria despite US opposition to these governments, and its determination to use Iraqi troops to lead the latest effort to pacify Baghdad.

At a time when Bush has committed an additional 21,500 troops to the fight in Iraq, Maliki went further than he has before in establishing a time frame for drawing down the US presence.

"If we succeed in implementing the agreement between us to speed up the equipping and providing weapons to our military forces, I think that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down. That's on the condition that there are real strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping them and arming them," Maliki said.

In a statement issued Tuesday by Maliki's office, he said Iraq would continue to build up its armed forces "so it will be possible to withdraw the multinational forces from cities, or withdraw 50,000 soldiers from Iraq."

Maliki faces skepticism in Iraq and abroad about whether he has the political will or ability to steer Iraq out of civil war, or even to keep his position as prime minister. His comments amounted to defense of the viability of his government, which he pledged to lead "until I achieve the peace and prosperity that Iraq deserves."

In an interview conducted Dec. 24, Maliki sounded less committed to his office. "I wish I could be done with it before the end" of his four-year term, he told The Wall Street Journal. "I would like to serve my people from outside the circle of senior official, maybe through parliament."

In the interview yesterday, Maliki said many American and Iraqi lives would have been spared if the Iraqi forces were better equipped. But he did not elaborate on what he wanted in terms of weapons or materiel, or if his needs exceeded what is proposed in the $1.5 billion military sales agreement Iraq reached with the United States last month.