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Militias emerge as biggest challenge
Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The man selected to lead Iraq continued to send mixed signals on the critical issue of dismantling armed militias, even as the U.S. ambassador on Sunday said disbanding the groups is the single most significant step in preventing civil war in Iraq.
Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim political figure who was endorsed by Iraq's new parliament as prime minister Saturday, has 30 days to form a Cabinet that meets the elected body's approval.
But as politicians continue to haggle over influence and jostle for government posts, the militia problem has emerged as the biggest challenge.
In one of his first public speeches after his endorsement, al-Maliki promised to rein in the militias but said he would do so by adhering to a controversial law that requires making them part of the government's security forces.
"It's a message in two directions," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political analyst in Baghdad. "One to those who are scared of the militias and the other message is to the militia people: 'We will take care of you.' "
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said militias and other unauthorized "death squads" are "a serious challenge to stability in Iraq to building a successful country based on rule of law."
But taking guns out of politics remains a challenge in a country where political forces have assembled armed forces to back their agendas.
Al-Maliki's own coalition is backed by two Shiite militias, the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Even the country's American-friendly Kurdish president appears unwilling to lay down arms. On Sunday, Jalal Talabani defended the 70,000-strong Kurdish peshmerga militia as a "regulated force."
"It seems like the Kurds always want an exception," said Ezzat Shabander, a secular legislator from former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's electoral slate.
Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of the Dawa Party, and a Shiite member of parliament for the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc, said Sunday that the militia problem is "exaggerated."
Besides, "We're not the only ones who are responsible for security," he said. American officials "let the elements of the past regime into the security forces. Even criminals that were released from the prisons were allowed into the security forces. We need to disinfect and clarify the security forces."
Some Sunni politicians, who along with Kurds were responsible for forcing incumbent interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside, say al-Maliki is playing politics with an explosive issue that has raised the political temperature in Iraq.
At the same time, al-Maliki's political future rests on the continued support of al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is believed by U.S. officials to be behind many of the sectarian killings of Sunnis. Al-Sadr's supporters have become key supporters of al-Maliki, helping the Dawa Party fend off a challenge from a rival Shiite group within the Shiite coalition.
Al-Maliki's predecessor, al-Jaafari, was criticized by Americans, Sunnis and secular Iraqi politicians as being too sectarian, and was eventually rejected as head of the next government, paving the way for al-Maliki's ascent.
Despite talks of a national unity government, rebels and sectarian bloodshed continue to plague the country.
Insurgents killed three American soldiers in the Baghdad area Sunday and fired mortars near the Defense Ministry in a spree of violence that also killed at least 29 Iraqis.
Sunday's deaths raised to eight the number of U.S. troops killed in the past two days.
At least 61 American service members have died in April, putting it on track to pass January — with 62 — as the deadliest month this year. It represents a jump over March, which with 31 deaths was the lowest monthly toll for the Americans since February 2004.
The three soldiers were killed Sunday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb northwest of capital, the U.S. command said.
The 29 slain Iraqis included seven killed when three mortars hit just outside the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, not far from Iraq's Defense Ministry.
In the evening, another mortar hit a home in southern Baghdad, killing a man and wounding two of his relatives. Drive-by shootings in nearby districts gunned down a schoolteacher outside her home, a car mechanic in his shop and two government workers who were driving their cars.
In an attack this morning, a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol south of Baghdad killed one civilian and wounded three soldiers, police said.
Sunni Arabs say Shiite militias have infiltrated the Interior Ministry and used death squads to kill Sunnis. Sectarian violence has flared since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
But the killings have gone both ways. Police said the bodies of six Shiites were found Sunday in the mainly Sunni district of Azamiyah in Baghdad, their hands and legs bound and their bodies showing signs of torture. Two more — their identities unknown — were found in a mixed district south of Baghdad.
The leader of the Azamiyah district council, Sheik Hassan Sabri Salman, said relatives on Sunday identified the bodies of 14 Sunnis kidnapped last week.
Los Angeles Times reporters Saif Hameed, Raheem Salman, Zainab Hussein and Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report, which was supplemented by The Associated Press.
Army training sailors for dry-land combat
FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Navy sailors are trading their sea legs for dry-land combat skills to help them survive in war zones, and the training is coming from an unusual place — the Army.
The Navy is sending thousands of men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan to relieve pressure on Army and Marine ground forces, some of whom have faced repeated deployments to the region.
Up to 10,000 sailors are expected to pass through Fort Jackson during the coming months, said Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for the Navy's Education and Training Command in Pensacola, Fla.
While the Navy is closely tied to the Marine Corps, the Marines' training bases didn't have the facilities to provide combat training for thousands of sailors in a short time, Aandahl said. That led the Navy to single out Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training base.
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