BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraq’s prime minister said on Monday that civil war has been averted in his country and that violence is down 75 percent, as the US military confirmed it is building a base on the Iranian border.
In a generally upbeat assessment, Nuri al-Maliki told parliament however that despite improvements in security in Baghdad, Iraqi forces still needed time to take control of security.
Maliki’s address came just hours before the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was due to give testimony to the US Congress in which he was expected to plead for more time to pacify the nation.
“The security situation witnessed a noted improvement recently in Baghdad,” Maliki told lawmakers. “But we still need more time and efforts to receive the security file.”
His comments are expected to give further fuel to Petraeus when he argues before Congress that President George W. Bush’s strategy of sending an extra 28,500 troops into Iraq since February has slashed sectarian violence and should be extended.
“We have succeeded in preventing Iraq from sliding into a civil war in spite of all the destabilising actions by local and international groups,” Maliki said.
Levels of violence in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, he added, had dropped 75 percent since the much-vaunted US troop “surge” was launched in February.
Maliki also said more than 14,000 fighters linked to Al-Qaeda have turned against the insurgency and joined the Iraqi armed forces.
Presenting his report card to parliament, Maliki said about 6,000 families had returned to their homes in Baghdad, while 5,941 suspected “terrorists” had been detained.
Of these, 3,396 have been released, he said. A total of 1,914 bombs had been defused and “thousands” of arms caches recovered.
“Since the launch of the operation, the Iraqi government has restored semi-normal life to parts of Baghdad,” said Maliki, giving an update for the period between February 14 when the “surge” began and August 14.
Hours after Maliki’s address, the authorities announced the easing of the nightly curfew in Baghdad during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan starting later this week.
Brigadier General Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said the curfew in Baghdad would come into effect at midnight instead of 11:00 pm but would continue to be enforced until 5:00 am.
He added the authorities had also decided to scrap the weekly vehicle curfew that usually applies between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm on Fridays, the weekly day of prayers, for the duration of the fasting month.
But violence continued to rage on Monday, with insurgents exploding a truck bomb in the northern province of Nineveh that killed five people, the interior ministry’s director of operations Abdel Karim Khalaf told AFP.
In other violence, US forces came under attack during a raid in Baghdad’s Shiite bastion of Sadr City early Monday, the military said.
The raid was aimed at apprehending a top militant leader. US troops did not suffer any casualty nor were there any arrests.
War-weary residents of Baghdad said they are praying that Ramadan, which in the past has marked an increase in insurgent attacks, passes peacefully.
But elusive Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden vowed in a new video released last week to step up the battle in Iraq.
The US military, meanwhile, said on Monday it is to build a base on Iraq’s border with Iran to stem what it charges is rampant smuggling of weapons and fighters.
The base, which the military describes as a “life support area”, will be set up in Badrah, in the central province of Wasit.
It said the base is “not really permanent, although it will be manned 24/7 and will be used for as long as necessary”, it said.