BAGHDAD – Iraq's foreign minister warned on Monday that a quick American military withdrawal from the country could lead to a full-scale civil war, the collapse of the government and spillover conflicts across the region.
The White House said President Bush is not contemplating withdrawing forces from Iraq now despite an erosion of support among Republicans for his war policy.
But the administration also tried to lower expectations about a report due Sunday on whether the Iraqi government is meeting political, economic and security benchmarks that Bush set in January when he announced a buildup of 21,500 U.S. combat forces.
Attacks in Baghdad killed 13 people as prominent Shiite and Sunni politicians called on Iraqi civilians to take up arms to defend themselves after a weekend of violence that claimed more than 220 lives, including one of the deadliest attacks of the four-year Iraqi conflict.
The burst of violence comes at a sensitive time. U.S. forces are waging offensives in and around Baghdad aimed at uprooting militants and bringing calm to the capital.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraqis "understand the huge pressure that will increase more and more in the United States" ahead of the progress report by the U.S. ambassador and top commander in Iraq.
"We have held discussion with members of Congress and explained to them the dangers of a quick pullout (from Iraq) and leaving a security vacuum," Zebari said. "The dangers could be a civil war, dividing the country, regional wars and the collapse of the state."
"In our estimations, until Iraqi forces are ready, there is a responsibility on the United States to stand with the (government) as the forces are being built," he said.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said that all of the additional troops had just gotten in place and it would be unrealistic to expect major progress now.
"You are not going to expect all the benchmarks to be met at the beginning of something," Snow said. "You are hoping that you are going to be able to see progress in terms of meeting benchmarks from that beginning stage to what you see in two months."
Zebari, a Kurd from northern Iraq, also said Turkey has massed 140,000 soldiers at Iraq's northern border, where the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has bases and launches attacks on Turkish forces.
"Turkey's fears are legitimate but such things can be discussed," Zebari said. "The perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders."
The Iraqi calls for the arming of civilians to fight insurgents reflected the growing frustration with Iraqi security forces' inability to prevent extremists' attacks — like Saturday's devastating suicide truck bombing in the Shiite town of Armili, north of Baghdad, that killed more than 150 people, according to the latest toll from police and officials.
On Sunday, Armili residents shouted insults at the governor of Salahuddin province, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, and the provincial police chief as they visited for funerals of the victims in the town with longtime tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, police and other officials said.
Shagti had detained the Armili police chief and put him under investigation for security failures. Shagti told The Associated Press that 250 new police were sent to Armili — a town of 26,000 that one lawmaker said had only 30 policemen before the attack.
Violence resumed in Baghdad, with a roadside bomb and two cars wired with explosives that killed eight around the capital and the discovery of a body with bullet wounds and torture marks dumped in the street, an apparent victim of sectarian death squads.
Around dawn, police discovered gunmen trying to plant bombs near the security wall surrounding the Sunni district of Azamiyah. In a gunbattle that followed, two soldiers and two policemen were killed, police said. There were no immediate reports about the casualties among the gunmen.
The police officials who described the Baghdad violence all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Fifty miles north of the capital, a roadside bomb exploded near an Iraqi military bus, killing nine Iraqi soldiers and injuring 21, according to an officer with the Iraqi 4th Division who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.
Iraqi commanders say U.S. and Iraqi troops are making progress in a three-pronged security sweep launched in mid-June — one in Baghdad, another to the northeast in Baqouba and the third to the south. The offensives on Baghdad's doorsteps aim to uproot Al Qaeda militants and other insurgents using the regions to plan attacks in the capital.
But Saturday's attack on Armili — a town of Shiites from the Turkoman ethnic minority — indicated extremists were moving further north to unprotected regions.
Ali Hashim Mukhtaroglu, deputy head of Iraqi Turkoman Front, said Monday the toll had reached 154 dead and 270 injured, and that 30 people were believed to be buried under the rubble of more than 100 mud-brick homes leveled in the town. Two police officers — Amin and Col. Sherzad Abdullah — said 150 people were killed.
Turkoman leaders accused the security forces of "negligence" and called for the arming of their community. "We demand the Iraqi government form Turkoman military units to protect Turkoman areas and their surroundings," Mukhtaroglu said.
The call for civilians to take up arms in their own defense was echoed Sunday by the country's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
"People have a right to expect from the government and security agencies protection for their lives, land, honor and property," al-Hashemi said in a statement. "But in the case of (their) inability, the people have no choice but to take up their own defense."
Another prominent Sunni lawmaker, Adnan al-Dulaimi, said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had failed to provide services and security but he stopped short of saying his followers would seek to topple the Shiite-led government in a no-confidence vote.
According to a U.S. news report, a large block of Sunni Iraqi politicians will ask for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence against al-Maliki's government on July 15.