Friday, February 27, 2009

Iraq not fazed by pending US pullout: Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki insisted on Thursday he was not fazed by a US withdrawal from the violence-scarred country as President Barack Obama prepared to announce a timeline for pulling out the troops.

"We have faith in our armed forces and our security services, to protect the country and consolidate security and stability," he said during talks with visiting Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Sabah.

"We have no worries for Iraq if American troops pull out," Maliki added, according to a statement from his office. "Thank God we have succeeded in ridding ourselves of sectarianism and racism."

Obama, who took office in January, was due to reveal his timeline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq on Friday during a visit to a Marine Corps base at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

Earlier this month, he approved an extra 17,000 soldiers for Afghanistan, confirming that Washington's focus was shifting from Baghdad to Kabul as the security situation in Iraq improves.

US officials have said that after weeks of discussions with top military commanders Obama is now leaning towards a 19-month Iraq pullout option rather than the 16-month target he backed when campaigning.

The Iraq drawdown is expected to allow more US troops to be deployed to Afghanistan, where the 17,000 troops will add to the 36,000-strong US force already there.

There are 142,000 American troops stationed in Iraq.

In an address to Congress on Tuesday, Obama said he was "now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars.

"I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war," he said.

Under a so-called Status of Forces Agreement signed with Baghdad last year, Washington agreed to withdraw all its combat troops by the end of 2011.

"It appears he's leaning to the 19-month option," an official said in Washington. "I think that's the way it's going." But he added that there was still "no final decision."

Military officers presented Obama -- an opponent of the US-led war on Iraq in 2003 -- with three options for the withdrawal, with deadlines of 16 months, 19 months and 23 months, officials said.

At least 4,249 US military personnel have died in Iraq since the invasion, according to an AFP tally based on the independent website

Meanwhile Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain, which will withdraw its 4,100 remaining troops in July, flew in to Baghdad on a previously unannounced visit for talks with Iraqi leaders.

His arrival amid a flurry of diplomacy at a time of improved security in the country coincided with a landmark visit by Sheikh Mohammed in the highest-level visit since Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Miliband was expected to meet British troops in the southern province of Basra where on January 1 they transferred control of Basra airport, Britain's main military base in the south, to Iraqi officials.

British troops withdrew from Basra city last September and transferred security control of the province some three months later after controlling it since the invasion.

On a visit to Iraq in December British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his country's remaining troops would leave by the end of July, but their mission would already be complete "by the end of May, or earlier."

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