BAGHDAD, Iraq – Gunmen wounded an Iraqi general Thursday in southeast Baghdad and a blast killed three people in the heart of the capital as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair prepared for a meeting on Iraq strategy now that a new government is in place.
Brig. Gen. Khalil al-Abadi, head of the Defense Ministry logistics office, was ambushed as he was driven to work in the Zafraniyah district, police said. His driver was also wounded.
The blast in central Baghdad occurred in a building on Tahrir Square, killing three and wounding 11, police Lt. Ali Mitaab said. Police suspect the building housed a bomb-making factory.
Bush and Blair were to meet Thursday and Friday in Washington, with Iraq strategy at the top of the agenda. Blair, who visited Baghdad this week, also will discuss Iraqi plans for an international conference to back its government and seek Bush's support for increased U.N. support, British officials said.
Both leaders have seen their poll ratings drop sharply and are under pressure to make troop cutbacks. But U.S. and British officials dampened expectations that the meetings would produce a timetable for withdrawal.
In Baghdad, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said he believes Iraqi forces are capable of taking over security around the country within 18 months, but he did not mention a timetable for U.S.-led coalition forces to leave.
"Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year-and-a-half," al-Maliki said in a written statement, in which he acknowledged that security forces needed more recruits, training and equipment.
Al-Maliki told NBC News that his government would speed up training of police and soldiers and "considering our determination to build our forces, we will be finished by the end of 2007."
U.S. military officials have cautioned that transferring security responsibility to the Iraqis does not mean international troops would leave immediately, although some reductions in troop levels might be possible.
But the level of violence has increased so much since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra that some U.S. officials and experts question whether the Iraqis are capable of handling the situation without U.S. help.
Iraqi forces designed to cope with Sunni Arab insurgents now face the threat of sectarian violence from militias and death squads — some of them believed to be within the ranks of the police and army.
Iraqi politicians have been unable to agree on who will head the Defense Ministry, which runs the army, and the Interior Ministry, which directs the police. Sunni Arab and Shiite political leaders expressed hope that compromise candidates would be found to head the two ministries by Saturday.
A firm hand guiding the two ministries could lay the groundwork for shifting security responsibilities from U.S.-led forces to the Iraqi army and police. U.S. officials have conceded that could take longer than Iraqi officials wish.
Iraq's armed forces and police number about 254,000 and should reach about 273,000 by year's end. That, according to al-Maliki, is when "responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control" — except for Anbar province and Baghdad, two of the most violent areas.
Al-Maliki and Blair said Monday that Iraqi security forces would start assuming full responsibility for some provinces and cities next month. They declined to set a date for a coalition withdrawal.
The Iraqi army needs to recruit at least 5,000 troops in Anbar, the western province that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged is not fully under coalition or Iraqi government control.
"I believe that parts of Anbar are under the control of terrorists and insurgents. But as far as the country as a whole is concerned, it is the coalition forces, along with Iraqi forces, who are in control," Khalilzad told CNN.
The U.S. Army has said it wants make up the shortfall in Anbar with locally recruited troops, but such a move probably will not be possible unless the Defense Ministry is controlled by a Sunni Arab.
"Negotiations are under way in order to reach a decision regarding the appointment of the ministers of defense and interior. Within the coming two days, the decision will be made," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the main Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Accordance Front.
Sunni Arabs also have sought the Defense Ministry as a counterbalance to the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, which many members of the minority blame for failing to disband militias they say are responsible for sectarian death squads.
Al-Dulaimi said his coalition presented six Defense Ministry nominees for vetting and made it clear that Sunni Arabs want an interior minister "who is not linked to militias."
Shiite deputies said a seven-member selection committee would keep meeting daily and hoped to make a choice by Saturday, the day before parliament convenes. The 275-member body will have to approve any candidates