BAGHDAD (AFP) – Foreign troops in Iraq might be replaced within two years, depending on how fast the country”s own troops can provide security, as signs emerged that the insurgency is suffering internal woes, US and Iraqi officials said.
The forecast came as Iraqis prepared to vote next week in a constitutional referendum whose outcome will help determine the success or failure of the rebel movement.
President Jalal Talabani, on a visit to London, said Iraq”s army was making progress towards replacing US-led troops in securing his violence-torn country.
"Within two years I think our troops will be ready to replace the coalition forces in Iraq," he told Britain”s Sky News television during on Friday.
"But the withdrawal of these forces must depend on a resolution from the (UN) Security Council and negotiations between the Iraqi government and the coalition forces," he added.
On Thursday, he had warned that a rushed pull-out would be a catastrophe.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said an intercepted letter from Al-Qaeda”s number two to its top militant in Iraq revealed concern over the impact on Arab opinion of beheadings and videotaped executions.
Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden”s second in command, also complained about communications, unity of command and funding problems to the extent that he asked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, for money, the spokesman said.
Existence of the 6,000-word letter, written in July, was disclosed to certain US news organizations on Thursday after President George W. Bush gave a speech aimed at shoring up eroding US support for the war against Al-Qaeda.
Early Saturday, an audiotape attributed to Zarqawi claimed that Islam permits the killing of "infidel" civilians.
"In Islam, making the difference is not based on civilians and military, but on the basis of Muslims and infidels," said the voice on the tape, broadcast on the Internet.
"The Muslim”s blood cannot be spilled whatever his work or place, while spilling the blood of the infidel, whatever his work or place, is authorized if he is not trustworthy," said the tape, whose veracity could not be determined.
In Washington, the US State Department said Friday that deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein should face trial as scheduled on October 19.
A senior British official had said Wednesday that the trial might be postponed because of logistical considerations such as the installation of bullet-proof screens or establishment of a witness protection program.
But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "The Iraqis have said the trial is scheduled to begin on October 19th and it”s my understanding that the date still stands."
Preparations continued apace Saturday for the October 15 referendum on a draft constitution designed to shape Iraq”s political future.
Almost five million copies were to be distributed ahead of the hotly contested vote, with a UN official overseeing the operation saying that despite getting off to a slow start, it was expected to be completed by October 14.
"There”s a huge demand. Iraqis want to read the constitution, whether they favour or oppose it," the official said, adding that some Iraqis were going straight to printing shops to get their copies.
Many households received their copy along with subsidised foodstuffs in exchange for state-issued ration tickets, but the text was also available in public buildings, hospitals, universities and even prisons.
In western Iraq, US forces wound up Operation Iron Fist aimed at disrupting insurgent operations near the Syrian border.
And the military announced the capture in northern Mosul of a man named Abu Maria, described as a "propaganda emir" who wrote reports on terrorist attacks and posted them on the Internet.