-

Saturday, May 27, 2006

BAGHDAD - At least 15 people were killed in attacks in Iraq on Saturday as the country's political leaders again failed to reach agreement on who should head the key defense and interior ministries.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had pledged earlier this week that the appointments would be made by Saturday, but a parliament source said the rival factions could still not agree.

"Because there is no agreement on the appointments the (parliament) session scheduled for Saturday ... will not go forward," said the source.

Parliament was expected to reconvene on Sunday, but there was no indication that the posts would be filled during the session.

The two ministries have been without permanent heads since the December election and Maliki has been unable to secure a compromise despite forming the rest of his broad-based 37-member cabinet a week ago.

Rivalries among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups have prevented a consensus on the security chiefs, who will be charged with reining in the sectarian and insurgent violence plaguing the country.

Violence was especially heavy Saturday in the restive city of Baquba, north of Baghdad, where 10 people were killed -- including five workers gunned down in a metals and auto workshop.

Gunmen in Baquba also shot up the convoy of Kahtan al-Bawi, chief office administrator for the police and brother of city police chief Gassan al-Bawi, killing him and two other officers.

Sectarian violence in particular has soared since the February bombing of an important Shiite shrine that has been followed by thousands of deaths in tit-for-tat revenge killings.

The US military said one its helicopter crashed on Saturday in western Iraq and its two crew members were missing, adding the incident did not appear to be the result of an insurgent strike.

A Jihadist group headed by Al-Qaeda in Iraq said its fighters had shot down two aircraft of the US-led coalition on Saturday in Radwaniya, near Baghdad, in a statement on its website whose authenticity could not be confirmed.

US President George W. Bush, meanwhile, in his weekly radio address, paid tribute to US soldiers who had died in Iraq.

"And the best way to honor America's fallen heroes is to carry on their fight, defend our freedom, and complete the mission for which they gave their lives," Bush said.

In the days since he was confirmed as Iraqi prime minister, Maliki has set security out as a high priority, promising to create a special security force for the violent capital and to select independents for the security ministries.

He also said Iraqi security forces would soon take on more responsibility for maintaining order in the country from US-led forces which have occupied the country since the March 2003 invasion which ousted Saddam Hussein.

A senior US military commander in the Baghdad area said Saturday that, according to his figures, the violence and murders in the capital are declining, after an initial spike.

"I think we've had an increase in murders, but that's starting to go down," he said, saying that in the past week 51 bodies had been found.

Security has improved sufficiently that the US is looking to hand over by August security control for two provinces just south of the capital, Najaf and Karbala, over to the provincial governors, added the commander.

Babel province, whose northern half includes the violence-prone "Triangle of Death" area, would be ready a few months later, said the commander on condition of anonymity.

"I think Baghdad, my best guess, is going to be transferred towards the end of the year, to provincial Iraqi control, where the governor is in here coordinating security for the overall Baghdad province," he added.

During a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Maliki announced Monday that security in two other southern provinces, Samawa and Amara, would be turned over this summer.

Blair and Bush, at a summit in Washington on Thursday, admitted that mistakes had been made in Iraq, but refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of their troops.

The United States has some 133,000 soldiers in Iraq and Britain 8,000.

However, Italy will reduce the size of its contingent from 2,700 to 1,600 soldiers next month and end its military presence by 2007, Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said in an interview due out Sunday.

On the reconstruction front, visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Saturday his country was ready to help Iraq with an economic investment plan totalling one billion dollars.

"We are planning seven projects in the fields of oil, electricity, hospital construction and other services," he told reporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

05/27/2006 19:08 GMT

Copyright © 2006