BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday he believed Iraqi forces would be ready by June 2007 to take full control of security in Iraq, an issue on which he pressed President Bush during their meeting in Amman, Jordan.
In making the argument that his military and police could handle security in the country, al-Maliki has routinely said the force could do the job within six months.
"I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready to receive this command and to command its own forces, and I can tell you that by next June our forces will be ready," al-Maliki said in an interview with ABC News.
Bush and al-Maliki agreed that the United States would speed efforts to turn security over the Iraqi forces, although they mentioned no timetable during a post-summit news conference.
Al-Malaki said he reassured Bush of "the government's resolve to impose the government's authority, bring stability, hold to account outlaws, and limit the possession of arms to the hands of the government."
Al-Maliki said he was determined to ensure that Iraq's security forces have the weapons and the training needed to fight more effectively on the battlefield.
"We mean by arming, the weapons fit to fight the terrorists ... the light and effective weapons, vehicles, armor vehicles and helicopters that will be active in the next phase in the fight against the terrorists," he said.
One of the main goals of the U.S. coalition is to train enough Iraqi soldiers and police to take over its security responsibilities, especially in western Iraq, where Al Qaeda in Iraq is powerful, and Baghdad, where fighting between Sunni militants and Shiite militias is escalating.
Bush said the U.S. would accelerate a planned handover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces but assured al-Maliki that Washington is not looking for a "graceful exit" from the war.
Earlier Thursday, al-Maliki called on lawmakers and Cabinet ministers loyal to an anti-American cleric to end their boycott of the government in response to his summit with Bush.
"I hope they reconsider their decision because it doesn't constitute a positive development in the political process," al-Maliki said at a news conference on his return to Baghdad from a two-day visit to neighboring Jordan, where he met with Bush and King Abdullah II.
The 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers loyal to the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had threatened to quit the government and parliament if al-Maliki went ahead with the summit, which aimed at halting Iraq's escalating sectarian violence and paving the way for a reduction of U.S. troops.
But they limited their protest to suspending participation in ministries and the legislature, and left open the possibility of returning to their jobs.
A senior Sadrist legislator, Baha al-Aaraji, said the cleric's supporters would return to work when there are more well-trained Iraqi security forces and the government ends the country's chronic shortages of electricity and fuel.
The Sadrists played a critical role in al-Maliki's election earlier this year, and he appears reluctant to comply with U.S. demands to disband the Mahdi Army, al-Sadr's Shiite militia. The militia is blamed for much of the sectarian violence tearing Iraq apart.
"Political partnership means commitment," al-Maliki said, addressing his Sadrist allies, whom he advised to use constitutional channels to air their grievances.
Al-Maliki pledged again Thursday to act against illegal armed groups, but he did not name the Mahdi Army or say what steps he might take.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said Iraqi forces found 28 bodies Wednesday in what may be a mass grave south of the city of Baqouba. For about a week, heavy fighting between Iraqi police and Sunni insurgents has killed scores of people in and around Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
In the southern city of Basra, police said gunmen killed Nasir Gatami, the deputy of the local chapter of a group called Sunni Endowment, and three of his bodyguards in an attack on their two-car convoy.
The Endowment, which confirmed the attack, was created to care for Sunni mosques across Iraq. In the past four months, 23 of its employees have been kidnapped in Baghdad, with suspicion focused on Shiite militias.
The military also said that a U.S. soldier was killed during combat in Baghdad on Wednesday, raising to at least 2,884 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began over 4 1/2 years ago.
The Sadrist boycott of parliament and government has not affected top ministries such as foreign, defense, oil, finance, interior, justice or trade. Shiite Cabinet members participating in the boycott include the ministers of agriculture, health, transport and public works.
Liwa Smeism, the minister of State Tourism and Archaeological Affairs, is participating, but he said the protest wouldn't stop all work in his and other agencies.
"We are protesting, not closing the ministries," he said in a telephone interview. "The undersecretaries and other officials are running them. If my decision is needed at my ministry, my staff can call me up at home."
Smeism said the participating ministers were, however, "suspending our participation in the Cabinet meetings until we get new directions from our leaders of the boycott."
Bush's meetings in Amman Thursday were supposed to be his second set of strategy sessions in the Jordanian capital.
But a scheduled Wednesday night meeting between Bush and al-Maliki, along with Jordan's king, was canceled.
Accounts vary as to the reason for the cancellation, but it followed the leak of a classified White House memo critical of al-Maliki and Sadrist boycott of Iraq's government and parliament.