Iraq PM defends govt, urges regional cooperation

Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Sunday his government had made progress on all fronts and urged neighbouring countries to work together to stop what he called ”evil” from destabilising the region.

Maliki was speaking a day before top United States officials in Iraq deliver a long-awaited assessment to the Democrat-controlled Congress on President George Bush’s decision to send 30 000 extra soldiers to Iraq.

The reports by the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker could influence any decision Bush takes on troop numbers amid demands from Democrats and some Republicans for US forces to start leaving Iraq.

Addressing a meeting of officials from neighbouring countries and Western powers such as the United States, Maliki said his government had made progress ”in all directions”.

The purpose of the meeting is to review the work of several committees that were set up after a high-level conference in Egypt in May where ministers from the region and the West discussed ways to stabilise Iraq.

”This government is working hard to develop the political situation. It has made many gains despite the huge destruction left by the former regime,” Maliki said.

Senior Democrats in the United States have slammed Maliki’s performance, with some even calling for his replacement.

The assessments by Petraeus and Crocker are expected to highlight a reduction in violence in Iraq but also note the country’s failure to pass laws aimed at reconciling warring majority Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.

Petraeus said in a letter to troops on Friday that the government’s record on political reforms had been disappointing.

Maliki, referring to attackers including Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda, said all nations had a stake in making the region safer.

”Evil wants to strike this or that country, it will not stop at the border of one country. For this, we have to stand together as a wall in the face of this evil,” Maliki said.

Yazidi attack mastermind killed

The U.S. military said it had killed a senior al-Qaeda militant who masterminded truck bomb attacks on the minority Yazidi community last month that killed more than 400 people.

Military spokesperson Rear Admiral Mark Fox said Abu Mohammad al-Afri was killed in an air strike south-west of the northern city of Mosul on September 3. Fox said Afri was an associate of Abu Ayyab al-Masri, the Egyptian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

”Iraq is a violent place, but it is clearly less violent than it was last winter,” Fox told a news conference, referring to a reduction in the number of large-scale attacks in recent months.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said discussions at Sunday’s meeting needed to include measures to tighten Iraq’s borders so ”terrorists and killers” cannot get into and out of the country.

”The fires lit [in Iraq] could reach other borders, which means those countries could be subject to the same risk,” Zebari said, without naming any of Iraq’s neighbours.

Washington accuses Iran and Syria of not doing enough to stop the flow of fighters and weapons into Iraq. Both countries, which have officials at the meeting, have denied the charges.

Fresh from his visit to Iraq last week where he raised the possibility of cutting troop levels, Bush said on Saturday he would address Americans next week to ”lay out a vision” for the future US role in Iraq after Petraeus and Crocker deliver their testimony. CNN said Bush would speak on Thursday.

Bush’s administration has to give its own report to Congress by next Saturday.

One of the goals of Bush’s seven-month-old troop ”surge” was to give Iraq’s divided leaders breathing space to reach a political compromise. US troop numbers now stand at 168 000.

But differences run deep, with the ruling Shi’ite majority reluctant to cede too much power while Sunni Arabs dominant under Saddam Hussein feel marginalised. – Reuters

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