BAGHDAD, Oct 26: Iraq's prime minister said today he could get violence under control in six months, half the time U S generals say they need, provided Washington gave him more weaponry and more say over his own forces.
In sharp criticism of the handling of Iraq's security by the United States, Nuri al-Maliki denied U S assertions he was working to a timetable of steps agreed with Washington.
He also told Reuters in an interview he had no fear the Americans might oust him, after President George W Bush said yesterday his patience was ''not unlimited'' and that he would back Maliki ''as long as he continues to make tough decisions''.
''They think building Iraqi forces will need 12 to 18 months, for us to be in control of security,'' Maliki said, referring to remarks two days ago by U S commander General George Casey.
''We agree our forces need work but think that if, as we are asking, the rebuilding of our forces was in our own hands, then it would take not 12-18 months but six might be enough.'' He called for more say on security policy once the U S-led Coalition's U N mandate runs out in December.
''If anyone is responsible for the poor security situation in Iraq it is the Coalition,'' Maliki said.
''I am now prime minister and overall commander of the armed forces yet I cannot move a single company without Coalition approval because of the U N mandate,'' Maliki said.
''I have to be careful fighting some militias and terrorists ... because they are better armed than the army and police,'' Maliki said. ''The police are sharing rifles.'' Bush, whose Republicans fear congressional election losses on November 7 because of Iraq, has increased pressure on Maliki to clamp down on militias loyal to fellow Shi'ite Islamists and amnesty insurgents from the Sunni minority.
Maliki said he rejected drawing a veil over what he called the terrorism by Baathist followers of Saddam Hussein.
''At least we can talk to the militias, we know who they are,'' Maliki said, noting they followed his own Dawa party and the other Shi'ite groups which dominate parliament. Maliki, in office for six months at the head of a unity coalition including Sunnis and Kurds, said he had won the agreement of Shi'ite militia leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr, the focus of particular U S criticism, to halt violence.
Iraqi Sunnis and U S officials blame members of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and similar Shi'ite paramilitary groups, some in the security forces, for thousands of sectarian killings.
''As far as 'tough decisions' go, I say we want to take firm and difficult decisions,'' Maliki said of Bush's remark.
''But anyone who wants to take a difficult decision has to do so from solid ground and so the far the ground is unstable -- due to current security policies.''
TIMELINE IN DISPUTE
Asked what kind of Iraqi forces he wanted, Maliki said: ''I'm not talking about modern tanks or modern warplanes and missiles ... I'm talking about having a well-trained army, swift and light on its feet and at the same time with medium weapons.'' The U S ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on Tuesday Maliki had agreed to a series of security and political ''benchmarks'' over the next year, including disbanding militias, that would follow a ''timeline'' supported by U S officials.
Maliki gave his own news conference the next day and denied he had agreed to do anything. He told Reuters today: ''The term used by Khalilzad was not accurate.'' He said the envoy seemed to be referring to the government's own view of desirable developments, not necessarily action by the government itself. ''It is not a timetable for the government but rather the issues needed to be solved,'' Maliki said.
Bush said yesterday that American patience in Iraq was ''not unlimited'' but Maliki said he did not take that to mean he would be pushed aside if the ''benchmarks'' were not met.
''I don't think American policy would commit the mistake of replacing a prime minister or a government in Iraq. That would be burning their slogans. I don't think they think like that as it would mean the failure of the entire political process.'' U S officials have not said what they would do if Iraq fails to meet targets, although Bush said he would not leave U S soldiers in the crossfire of a civil war.