The Associated Press reports:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that an agreement requiring U.S. troops to leave by the end of 2011 will stand because Iraqi forces are capable of taking care of the country’s security.
The comments are his first on the subject since being tasked with forming a new government after nearly nine months of political deadlock, and some of his strongest to date on what is expected to be a key issue facing the next government.
“The security agreement with what it included of dates and commitments will remain valid, and I do not feel the need for the presence of any other international forces to help Iraqis control the security situation,” al-Maliki told reporters during his first news conference since getting the formal request on Thursday to form the new government.
The Los Angeles Times reports on the renewed influence of Muqtada al Sadr.
In recent months, Maliki’s government has freed hundreds of controversial members of the Shiite Muslim cleric’s Mahdi Army and handed security positions to veteran commanders of the militia, which was blamed for some of the most disturbing violence in the country’s civil war and insurgency against U.S. forces.
The Mahdi Army has also in effect seized control of cellblocks at one of Iraq’s largest detention facilities, Taji prison. Within months of the U.S. hand-over of the prison in March, Mahdi Army detainees were giving orders to guards who were either loyal to or intimidated by them, Iraqi and U.S. officials say.
It marks a remarkable return to prominence for Sadr, an Iranian-backed Shiite cleric who stunned his followers in September when he delivered pivotal parliamentary votes to Maliki that helped him stay in power.
Senior Sadr supporters are being brought into the Interior Ministry at high-level positions, according to Mahdi Army members and Iraqi officers. One Sadr commander who is being given the rank of brigadier general said he knew of 50 others who were being recruited for officers’ positions.
The group has secured political gains also. Last week, the Sadr camp won the deputy speaker position in parliament, defeating Maliki’s candidate, and is said to be vying for the post of deputy prime minister too.
The Sadr movement’s prominence may make it harder for the United States to wield its waning influence in Iraq, including securing an agreement allowing it to keep forces in Iraq after the end of 2011, when the last U.S. troops are scheduled to leave.