BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday that Iraqi forces are capable of taking control of security in all of Iraq within 18 months, but still need more recruits, training and equipment.
Drive-by shootings killed 17 people Wednesday, including a provincial official in northern Iraq and two of his bodyguards, and authorities found the bodies of nine people who apparently had been kidnapped and tortured by death squads.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces killed seven insurgents in two operations outside the capital, and a bomb set fire to an oil pipeline south of Baghdad, officials said.
After meeting with Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, al-Maliki issued a statement saying: "Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half."
His brief statement praised Iraqi forces for their fight against insurgents, but said his military needs more manpower, training and equipment.
It was the latest of several deadlines discussed recently regarding Iraq's plans to take over more of the security of the country from the U.S.-led coalition.
On Monday, during British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit, al-Maliki said Iraqi security forces would start assuming full responsibility for some provinces and cities next month, beginning a process leading to the eventual withdrawal of all coalition forces.
Blair and al-Maliki declined to set a timetable, but British media quoted an unidentified senior British official as saying coalition forces should be out of Iraq within four years.
The British and Iraqi leaders said "responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security" should be transferred to Iraqi control by December. Al-Maliki said two of Iraq's most violent provinces, Baghdad and Anbar, may be the last where coalition forces maintain control.
Wednesday's worst drive-by shooting killed Adel Issa, a member of Diyala provincial council, and two of his bodyguards in their convoy in northern Iraq, said Dr. Mansour Ali at Muqdadiya General Hospital. Issa, a Kurd, was a member of the region's main Kurdish coalition.
In Baghdad, 10 drive-by shootings killed 14 people. The victims included a member of Iraq's national tennis team and two of his friends, a college student, two day laborers, a police officer, two street vendors, a university professor, two taxis drivers, a builder and the owner of a grocery store, police said.
Drive-by shootings, a common form of killing in Baghdad, often happen so quickly police can't tell whether they were motivated by sectarian hatred or personal vendettas. Insurgents, private militias and petty criminals sometimes disguise themselves as policemen and soldiers, making it difficult for Iraqi forces to identify or hunt down the killers.
An editorial cartoon Wednesday in an Arabic-language newspapers sold in Baghdad, meanwhile, cast doubt on the strength of al-Maliki's new government.
The cartoon in Asharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi newspaper based in London, showed al-Maliki sitting nervously atop a huge bull he was about to ride bare back at a rodeo. Beside him, Uncle Sam looked at his watch to see how long al-Maliki would survive the ride.
President Bush, facing political pressure at home for American troop cutbacks, said Tuesday he would make a fresh assessment about Iraq's needs for U.S. military help now that the new government has taken office.
"We haven't gotten to the point yet where the new government is sitting down with our commanders to come up with a joint way forward," Bush told a news conference in Washington. "However, having said that, this is a new chapter in our relationship. In other words, we're now able to take a new assessment about the needs necessary for the Iraqis."
At a news conference Wednesday, Fogh Rasmussen, a staunch supporter of Bush, said he hopes the new Iraqi government can improve security and begin to rebuild the country.
He said al-Maliki's government can count on Denmark's help. "We will not let the Iraqi people down," said Fogh Rasmussen.
In other violence Wednesday, two roadside bombs wounded nine Iraqis, including two soldiers, in Baghdad, and gunmen killed one Iraqi soldier and wounded two at an Iraqi military highway checkpoint near the a U.S. military base north of Baghdad, officials said.
Baghdad police found the bodies of two Iraqis who had been shot in the head, Hussein said.
In Dayera, a rural area about 35 miles south of Baghdad, police found seven bodies of Iraqis who had been shot through the head, said police Capt. Muthana Khalid.
On Tuesday, a gunbattle between U.S. forces and insurgents killed four militants and detained two, one of whom was wounded, northwest of Baghdad near Lake Thar Thar, the U.S. command said Wednesday. It said one of the detained insurgents was Sudanese.
In a separate operation Tuesday near Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. forces searching for a wanted Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgent killed three members of the group who were riding in a vehicle equipped with grenades, small arms, a suicide bomb vest and foreign passports, the U.S. command said.
No U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians were hurt during the two operations, the military said.
Meanwhile, a bomb explosion set fire to an oil pipeline in Latifiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, said police Capt. Rashid al-Samarie. The pipeline carries oil from a storage area to the Dora refinery in Baghdad, which often is bombed by insurgents.