BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's president said Saturday that he had been assured that American troops will stay in his country as long as needed, while at least 14 people were killed in explosions and gunfire nationwide as vehicle restrictions were lifted in Baghdad.
A top U.S. general, meanwhile, said he was "very, very pleased" with the response of Iraqi armed forces in containing recent sectarian bloodshed, disputing critics who said too little was done to quell attacks that killed more than 500 people the past week.
Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, spent two days in Baghdad meeting with top Iraqi leaders after the Feb. 22 bombing of a golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra triggered reprisal attacks against Sunnis that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Iraqi security forces blunted the sectarian killing with an extraordinary daytime curfew in four flashpoint provinces last weekend, followed by a driving ban in Baghdad on Friday.
But with the ban lifted on Saturday, violence resumed, with a bomb exploding at a bus terminal in southeastern Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding 25.
Abizaid said he was "very, very pleased with the reaction of the Iraqi armed forces during the aftermath of the bombing in Samarra."
He warned that more such attacks were likely but added: "We believe that the Iraqi armed forces, in conjunction with the multinational force, can deal with any security problem that may arise."
That was a more upbeat assessment than the one given Thursday by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, who told reporters that Iraqi police and army units had performed "generally well, not uniformly well."
Casey said the mostly Shiite security forces sometimes gave armed sectarian fighters free rein in Baghdad and Basra, where reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics took days to contain.
U.S. officials have expressed concern about the role of private militias in the violence.
But Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said Saturday the government was making progress integrating militiamen into its structures. Some are joining the security forces, but most will be given jobs in government departments, while those over age 50 will retire, he said at a news briefing.
The question remained whether militiamen would comply and whether the government would get tough on enforcing the integration policy.
Sunni Arab politicians accuse militiamen operating within the Interior Ministry ranks of kidnapping and killing their people under the cover of fighting the Sunni-dominated insurgency. Jabr denies the accusations.
Early Sunday, Interior Ministry commandos stormed a Sunni mosque in west Baghdad, killing three people — including the mosque imam and his son — in a 25 minute gunbattle, police said.
The cause of the clash was not known nor was the name of the Sunni cleric who was killed.
U.S. forces blocked off the area after the exchange of fire, which also wounded seven people, said police Lt. Maitham Abdul Rezzaq.
The surge of sectarian killing has complicated already tangled negotiations to form a broad-based government after the Dec. 15 parliamentary election, which U.S. officials consider essential to stabilize the country so their troops can start pulling out this summer.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, visiting Iraq as part of her duties on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was imperative that Iraqi politicians act quickly to get a government in place.
"The security vacuum will continue to develop if there isn't a permanent and strong leadership soon," Snowe told The Associated Press.
President Jalal Talabani said Abizaid assured him U.S. forces "are ready to stay as long as we ask them, no matter what the period is."
Talabani, a Kurd, is at the center of a campaign by Sunni, Kurdish and some secular politicians to deny the Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari a second term. The three blocs have asked the dominant Shiite United Iraqi Alliance to nominate another candidate.
The Sunni Arab minority blames al-Jaafari for failing to control Shiite militiamen who went on a rampage after the destruction of the Shiite Askariya shrine. Kurds are angry because they believe al-Jaafari is holding up the resolution of their claims to control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
"With all our respect to Dr. al-Jaafari, we asked them to choose a candidate who is unanimously agreed on by Iraqis," Talabani said. "I want to be clear, it is not against Dr. al-Jaafari as a person. He has been my friend for 25 years."
As the largest bloc in parliament, the Shiite Alliance gets the first chance to form a government, but it must be approved by two-thirds of parliament, support it cannot muster.
The Alliance itself is divided about who should be prime minister: al-Jaafari won the nomination by a single vote at a Feb. 12 Shiite caucus. Some leaders are troubled by al-Jaafari's ties to Muqtada al-Sadr.
Two lawmakers from al-Jaafari's Dawa Party visited the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Saturday to seek the endorsement of Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Hundreds demonstrated Saturday in Najaf and Amarah, in the southern Shiite heartland, in support of al-Jaafari's bid.
In other violence Saturday, according to police:
— A bomb killed two Interior Ministry commandos patrolling in the Salman Pak area southeast of Baghdad and wounded two others.
— A bomb in a busy commercial area in Baqouba killed a young girl and injuring eight people.
— A Shiite lawmaker was wounded when gunmen in two speeding cars fired on his vehicle near Basra. An aide for Qasim Attiyah al-Jbouri, the former head of the provincial council, was killed and two bodyguards injured.
— Gunmen killed two people and injured two outside a Shiite mosque in Kirkuk.
— A local Iraqi Communist Party leader was gunned down outside his office in Hawija.
— At least four handcuffed, shot-up bodies were found dumped in Baghdad and south of the capital.