Iraqi leader to name ministers

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday he may soon be ready to name the two men who will be charged with carrying out his pledge to take over security for Iraq within 18 months.

The initial focus of the effort will be restoring order for the capital’s more than 5 million residents, who have suffered the most from suicidal killers, roadside bombs and sectarian death squads.

“It is time for those who want to steal the smiles from the Iraqi people and turn its women into mourners to be silenced,” said Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie, the Sunni Arab who is filling the defense post temporarily.

The announcement came on a day that saw 13 killings, including the deaths of two U.S. soldiers who were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Baghdad.

Al-Zubaie did not provide details on al-Maliki’s plans to restore security in Baghdad. However, President Jalal Talabani said securing the country would probably require a unified unit of soldiers and police.

“We are forming a force to protect Baghdad by the best and trained elements in the interior and defense ministries. They will be under one leadership and under the direct supervision of the prime minister,” Talabani told al-Furat TV.

The various Iraqi police and army units now wear a variety of uniforms. Talabani said the new unit would wear one uniform, “be the only authorized force to travel in Baghdad.” The goal is to eliminate death squads and other armed groups who roam the capital disguised as security forces.

There has been little discussion about al-Maliki’s announced plan for a phased security takeover of Iraq’s 18 provinces, or how it would lead to the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.

The strategy has been for American and international forces to hand over security control for specific regions and redeploy to larger bases – where they could act in a support or reserve role. A final future stage would involve the drawdown of troops from those bases.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged difficult times in the Iraq war and admitted making costly mistakes, but vowed to keep troops there until the new Iraqi government takes hold.

Bush declined at the Washington joint news conference to discuss news reports that the Pentagon hoped that the U.S. force, now at 131,000 troops, could be reduced to about 100,000 by year’s end.

“We’ll keep the force level there necessary to win,” Bush said.

In a rare introspective comment, Bush said he regrets his rhetoric in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks such as his “wanted dead or alive” description of Osama bin Laden and his taunting “bring ‘em on” challenge to Iraqi insurgents.

British officials have said most coalition forces could be withdrawn by 2010, but no timetable will be agreed upon during the talks with Bush, Blair’s spokesman said in London.

“No one wants our troops to stay there forever, but equally no group … wants the troops to withdraw immediately,” said the spokesman, who spoke on condition he not be named in accordance with British government regulations. Britain has 8,000 troops in Iraq.

Al-Maliki said he could decide by Friday on the two security ministers, who were not named last week along with the rest of his Cabinet because of ethnic and sectarian disagreements. The two would then probably be sworn in Sunday, when parliament reconvenes.

“We have number of names for the interior and defense ministries,” al-Maliki told The Associated Press, adding they would meet Friday to decide on the nominees.

He said problems included the large number of candidates presented by his Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the Sunni Arabs’ Iraqi Accordance Front.

“The alliance has six names for the Interior Ministry post and the Accordance Front has tens of names,” al-Maliki said after meeting Talabani and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – the country’s largest Shiite party.

Al-Hakim said the alliance has reservations over some nominees “because they had links with the former regime” of Saddam Hussein.

Also Thursday, the top U.S. Marine, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, said he was heading to Iraq because he feared some Marines could become “indifferent to the loss of a human life.”

“We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force. We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful,” Hagee said in a statement. It said he was coming to Iraq to reinforce the Marine Corps’ standards of behavior in combat.

The announcement of his trip came hours after the Marine command in Iraq disclosed a criminal inquiry into allegations that an unspecified number of Marines killed an Iraqi civilian west of Baghdad on April 26. Iraqis made the accusation during a meeting with Marine officers May 1.

In violence Thursday, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers when it struck their vehicle in southern Baghdad. Their death brought to 2,464 the members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The military also said its troops killed three suspected insurgents who were placing roadside bombs near the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad.

An explosion in a building in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square killed three people and wounded 11, and police said they suspected a bomb-making factory had blown up.

In the northern city of Mosul, drive-by shooters killed a city councilman and his driver. A police colonel and arts professor were gunned down in Baghdad, and a police captain was shot and killed in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Police also said two men working for Iraqna, a cell phone company, were killed in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad. And the bullet-riddled bodies of three men were found in the capital’s southern Dora neighborhood.

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