BAGHDAD – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that an agreement requiring U.S. troops to leave by the end of 2011 will stand because Iraqi forces are capable of taking care of the country's security.
The comments are his first on the subject since being tasked with forming a new government after nearly nine months of political deadlock, and some of his strongest to date on what is expected to be a key issue facing the next government.
"The security agreement with what it included of dates and commitments will remain valid, and I do not feel the need for the presence of any other international forces to help Iraqis control the security situation," al-Maliki told reporters during his first news conference since getting the formal request on Thursday to form the new government.
Under an agreement between Iraq and the U.S., all American troops are to leave the country by the end of 2011. The U.S. currently has a little less than 50,000 troops in Iraq, down from a one-time high of 170,000.
American officials have said they will abide by the agreement although they would consider any request by the new Iraqi government to stay longer.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. government is open to discussing changes to the agreement. But he said the "initiative clearly needs to come from the Iraqis."
Allowing American troops to stay longer could help reinforce Iraq's developing security forces. But it would be a dangerous gamble for the Iraqi and U.S. governments. President Barack Obama was elected in large part due to his promise to end the Iraq war. Any Iraqi political leader who asked the Americans to stay would risk looking weak to an electorate tired of American troops on their soil.
Al-Maliki was asked Thursday to form the next government after the months-long stalemate that followed the inconclusive March 7 election. Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition got 89 seats to 91 for the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi.
Neither got the 163-seat majority, and after months of negotiating, Allawi was never able to get enough partners to govern.
Al-Maliki has 30 days to form his Cabinet, which must then be approved by the parliament. Al-Maliki said Saturday that he expects to announce the government between Dec. 10 and Dec. 15.
He also disagreed with a contention by Allawi that democracy is dead in Iraq, but said Iraqiya should be included in the next government.
"We do not wish any to be absent from the formation," he said. "The participation of Iraqiya is very important."
One sign of the Iraqi security forces' burgeoning capability came Saturday when Iraq's interior minister said they have arrested at least 12 insurgents behind a deadly church siege.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani told The Associated Press that the arrests — the first in connection with the October siege at the Our Lady of Salvation church — occurred in recent days.
He said the insurgents were behind a wide range of operations in Iraq leading up to the siege and described their arrest as a coup for security forces.
"It is a painful blow to al-Qaida," Bolani said.
Insurgents took about 120 people hostage during the Oct. 31 church attack. The siege ended hours later with 68 people dead in an attack that shocked many of Iraq's already-hardened citizens.
The assailants raided the church, located in one of Baghdad's more affluent neighborhoods, during Sunday evening Mass. Dozens of cowering parishioners and two priests were killed — one execution-style on the church floor — before Iraqi security forces stormed the building.
Al-Qaida later claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed in an Internet message to continue a campaign of bloodshed against Iraq's dwindling Christian minority.
According to Bolani, security forces also seized money and explosives during the arrests.
Bolani gave no details as to where and how the arrests took place, but an intelligence official responsible for monitoring al-Qaida cells in Iraq, said security forces acted on a tip to make the first arrest.
From there, the security forces eventually managed to round up the entire group, the official said. He put the number of people arrested at 17.
The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Al-Maliki said he had beefed up security at churches across the country and called on Iraq's Christians to stay. After the church siege, some countries invited Iraqi Christians to apply for asylum, irritating many Iraqis who see them as part of the fabric of their country.
"I do not think that it is right for the Christians in the world to encourage Iraqi Christians to leave Iraq," al-Maliki said.
Associated Press writer Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.