September 2, 2006

Iraq, US at odds over military handover

By Ross Colvin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States and Iraq were at odds
on Saturday over the transfer of operational control of Iraq's
military to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, forcing
a delay of a handover ceremony.

Saturday's ceremony to transfer control of Iraq's army from
U.S. commander General George Casey to the Iraqi Defense
Ministry had been hailed by U.S. officials as a big step toward
Iraq taking responsibility for security.

"There is a disagreement on the wording of the document
that outlines the new relationship between Coalition Forces and
Iraqis," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry
Johnson told Reuters late on Saturday evening.

"It is embarrassing, but it was decided it was better not
to sign the document," he said, adding that objections to the
wording had been raised by Maliki's government.

The U.S. military, suffering almost daily casualties, has
been training Iraq's fledgling military so that it can
gradually extract itself from Iraq's increasingly sectarian
violence more than three years after the 2003 invasion.

"They are not going to go ahead with the document until the
language is agreed upon. It's not a matter of major substance,
but they're not happy with the wording of the document,"
Johnson said, adding that it would be signed "in a matter of

Maliki, keen to be seen as ending his government's
dependency on U.S. military power, said this week his forces
would take control of most of Iraq from foreign troops by the
end of the year. But some analysts have questioned this
timetable given the surge in sectarian bloodletting.

Fourteen Pakistani and Indian Shi'ite pilgrims were
abducted and killed in Iraq's western desert, police said on
Saturday, victims of sectarian strife between Sunnis and
Shi'ites that threatens civil war.

In his weekly radio address, U.S. President George. W Bush
told Americans that Iraq was not in civil war, despite a bloody
week in which hundreds more died and a grim Pentagon report
said spreading violence may turn into just such an all-out

"Our commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that
Iraq has not descended into a civil war," Bush said. "They
report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in
sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace
and a normal life in a unified country."


The top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,
issued a new call for restraint after meeting Shi'ite Islamist
Maliki in the holy city of Najaf and warned the government to
act quickly to avoid disaster.

The slain pilgrims, 11 Pakistanis and three Indians, had
been traveling to holy Shi'ite sites in Iraq on Thursday when
they were attacked in Anbar province, the desert heartland of
the Sunni insurgency, Iraqi and Indian officials said.

An official at the al-Hussein hospital in the Shi'ite holy
city of Kerbala, where the bodies were taken on Friday, said
the 14 men had their hands bound and had been shot in the head.
Some had been tortured and one was partially decapitated.

An attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in February has
unleashed bloodletting between majority Shi'ites and minority
Sunni Muslims who were politically dominant under Saddam
Hussein and now form the backbone of the three-year-old

"If the state is unable to ensure security for the people
then this will open the way for some groups to do this and this
would be very risky," Sistani said in a statement, referring to
militias blamed for violence and which Maliki vows to disband.

But the reclusive Sistani's restraining hand on Shi'ites
has been weakened since the February attack as Shi'ite death
squads have become prime movers in what the Pentagon called the
"core conflict" -- no longer the insurgency but sectarian

Indian junior Foreign Minister E. Ahamed told Reuters the
14 pilgrims killed on Thursday were among 40 people who had
entered Iraq after touring holy sites in Jordan and Syria.

Ahamed said gunmen had stopped the convoy and separated the
men from the women in the party, which comprised 14 Indians and
26 Pakistanis. Police found the bodies of the men in
neighboring Kerbala province the following day, he said.

Assessing the situation in Iraq over the past three months,
a 63-page Pentagon report said on Friday attacks rose by 24
percent, Iraqi casualties soared by 51 percent and the violence
was extending north beyond Baghdad. Partial Iraqi data
indicated a dip of about a quarter in civilian deaths in
August, however.

(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad,
Patricia Wilson in Washington, N. Ananthanarayanan in New Delhi
and Alastair Macdonald, Ibon Villelabeitia, and Mussab
Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)