Sunday, September 03, 2006

Iraq, US at odds over military handover

Iraq, US at odds over military handover
By Ross Colvin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States and Iraq were at odds on Saturday over the transfer of operational control of Iraq's military to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, forcing a delay of a handover ceremony.

Saturday's ceremony to transfer control of Iraq's army from U.S. commander General George Casey to the Iraqi Defense Ministry had been hailed by U.S. officials as a big step toward Iraq taking responsibility for security.

"There is a disagreement on the wording of the document that outlines the new relationship between Coalition Forces and Iraqis," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson told Reuters late on Saturday evening.

"It is embarrassing, but it was decided it was better not to sign the document," he said, adding that objections to the wording had been raised by Maliki's government.

The U.S. military, suffering almost daily casualties, has been training Iraq's fledgling military so that it can gradually extract itself from Iraq's increasingly sectarian violence more than three years after the 2003 invasion.

"They are not going to go ahead with the document until the language is agreed upon. It's not a matter of major substance, but they're not happy with the wording of the document," Johnson said, adding that it would be signed "in a matter of days".

Maliki, keen to be seen as ending his government's dependency on U.S. military power, said this week his forces would take control of most of Iraq from foreign troops by the end of the year. But some analysts have questioned this timetable given the surge in sectarian bloodletting.

Fourteen Pakistani and Indian Shi'ite pilgrims were abducted and killed in Iraq's western desert, police said on Saturday, victims of sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi'ites that threatens civil war.

In his weekly radio address, U.S. President George. W Bush told Americans that Iraq was not in civil war, despite a bloody week in which hundreds more died and a grim Pentagon report said spreading violence may turn into just such an all-out conflict.

"Our commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that Iraq has not descended into a civil war," Bush said. "They report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace and a normal life in a unified country."


The top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a new call for restraint after meeting Shi'ite Islamist Maliki in the holy city of Najaf and warned the government to act quickly to avoid disaster.

The slain pilgrims, 11 Pakistanis and three Indians, had been traveling to holy Shi'ite sites in Iraq on Thursday when they were attacked in Anbar province, the desert heartland of the Sunni insurgency, Iraqi and Indian officials said.

An official at the al-Hussein hospital in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala, where the bodies were taken on Friday, said the 14 men had their hands bound and had been shot in the head. Some had been tortured and one was partially decapitated.

An attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in February has unleashed bloodletting between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Muslims who were politically dominant under Saddam Hussein and now form the backbone of the three-year-old insurgency.

"If the state is unable to ensure security for the people then this will open the way for some groups to do this and this would be very risky," Sistani said in a statement, referring to militias blamed for violence and which Maliki vows to disband.

But the reclusive Sistani's restraining hand on Shi'ites has been weakened since the February attack as Shi'ite death squads have become prime movers in what the Pentagon called the "core conflict" -- no longer the insurgency but sectarian bloodshed.

Indian junior Foreign Minister E. Ahamed told Reuters the 14 pilgrims killed on Thursday were among 40 people who had entered Iraq after touring holy sites in Jordan and Syria.

Ahamed said gunmen had stopped the convoy and separated the men from the women in the party, which comprised 14 Indians and 26 Pakistanis. Police found the bodies of the men in neighboring Kerbala province the following day, he said.

Assessing the situation in Iraq over the past three months, a 63-page Pentagon report said on Friday attacks rose by 24 percent, Iraqi casualties soared by 51 percent and the violence was extending north beyond Baghdad. Partial Iraqi data indicated a dip of about a quarter in civilian deaths in August, however.

(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad, Patricia Wilson in Washington, N. Ananthanarayanan in New Delhi and Alastair Macdonald, Ibon Villelabeitia, and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)