Iraq Vows Security Takeover This Year

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – President Jalal Talabani said Wednesday that Iraqi forces will assume security duties for the whole country by the end of the year, taking over responsibility from U.S. and other foreign troops now policing all but one of the 18 provinces.

The optimistic forecast came during a relative lull in the violence wracking Iraq. Police said nine people were slain Wednesday, a day after a wave of bombings and shootings killed more than 70.

Iraqi leaders had said previously that their goal was to be fully in control of security by the end of 2006, but Talabani’s statement was the most specific.

The president, a Kurd from northern Iraq, said the government is confident it will vanquish extremist groups, calling the recent surge in violence as “the last arrows in their pockets.”

“We are highly optimistic that we will terminate terrorism in this year,” he said.

He said the U.S.-led multinational force will assume a supportive role by year’s end as Iraqi troops take over security. He did not elaborate, and it was not clear if he meant U.S. troops would retain an advisory role in security or take a fully hands-off approach.

“The terrorists fear the unity of the Iraqi people,” the president said. “Our armed forces are doing well, but we expect more from them.”

For now, Iraqi troops provide security on their own in only one province, Muthana, a relatively quiet area in the south. Local forces support U.S. and other foreign troops in the other 17 provinces.

Many lawmakers have called for replacing the interior minister because the government hasn’t stopped almost daily bombings, drive-by shootings and executions after abductions.

Much of the violence in Baghdad is blamed on a sectarian rift between Shiites and Sunnis, and the bloodshed is seen as a greater threat to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government than the Sunni-led insurgency that erupted after the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military is moving at least 3,700 soldiers from the northern city of Mosul to the capital for a planned operation to wrest control of Baghdad from Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, kidnap gangs, rogue police and freelance gunmen.

U.S. officials have described the Baghdad campaign as a “must-win” for al-Maliki, whose government has struggled to curb violence since taking office May 20. American troops will work alongside U.S.-trained Iraqi forces.

As part of the campaign against militias, U.S. troops on Tuesday arrested a Baghdad-area representative of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is among the most feared armed groups.

A prominent Shiite leader called Wednesday for setting up resident committees in Baghdad neighborhoods to help security forces.

“The security forces … should strike with fists of iron and they should be tough with those who are shedding the blood of the Iraqis,” Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim said in a speech.

“You (the people) are the nucleus and the pioneers for these popular committees that will defend Iraq, its religion, its dignity and its people,” said al-Hakim, head of the dominant Shiite alliance in Parliament.

Early Wednesday, a bomb in a garbage bag lying on a street in downtown Baghdad exploded near a group of laborers waiting for work, said police 1st Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Ali. He said three laborers died and eight were injured. A second bomb, also hidden in a bag, exploded a few minutes later but caused no casualties, he said.

In other violence, two traffic police colonels were killed and two guards wounded in a drive-by shooting in Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

A police patrol was hit by a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul, killing one policeman and injuring four, police said.

A man was also killed when a bomb he was planting on a highway in northern Baghdad exploded, police said.

Two unidentified bodies, showing signs of torture and gunshot wounds to the head, were found in northwestern Baghdad.

On Tuesday, a roadside bomb destroyed a bus packed with Iraqi soldiers near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. All 24 people aboard were killed. Fourteen people also died and 37 were wounded when a car bomb exploded at a bank in Baghdad where police and soldiers were picking up paychecks.

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