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Iraqi Forces Can Cope After U.S. Withdrawal, Says PM

Kevin Rudd (L) and Nuri al-Maliki
CANBERRA (Reuters) -- Security forces in Iraq will be able to control the country when U.S. forces withdraw, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said, despite successive bombings, which killed scores of people this week.

U.S. President Barack Obama said last month the United States will withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a force of up to about 50,000 to advise and train Iraq's own security forces through 2011.

Maliki's comments contradicted those of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who told Reuters in an interview in Baghdad on March 11 he was worried Iraqi security forces may not be ready to meet Obama's withdrawal dates.

Two bombings, which shattered months of recent calm, killing at least 60 people, also raised fresh fears about the ability of Iraqi forces to quell insurgents, when the Americans leave.

"When it comes to the withdrawal of American forces, I believe that the Iraqis will be capable of taking the whole situation in their hands," Maliki said in Canberra after trade and security talks with his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd.

Maliki said the abilities of Iraqi forces in both combat operations and intelligence gathering had been steadily improving through close cooperation with local communities.

"Notwithstanding the gruesome operations that took place and the large number of victims, al Qaeda, extremists and terrorists in Iraq have lost their capabilities of confronting and challenging the security forces in Iraq," he said.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed widespread sectarian bloodshed, but violence has dropped dramatically in the past year and foreign troops are now preparing to leave.

Australia, a close U.S. ally, was an original member of the coalition, which invaded Iraq to oust former ruler Saddam Hussein.

Rudd, whose center-left government swept aside conservatives in 2007, ordered more than 550 Australian combat soldiers to leave Iraq last year, leaving behind a navy ship and small non-combat force to aid reconstruction operations.

Iraq has been struggling to ensure its security forces, whose forerunner was disbanded in 2003 by U.S. officials, are capable of policing Iraq's streets, and eradicating insurgents.

While voicing "doubts and anxiety", about the readiness of Iraqi troops and police, Hashimi said Baghdad would not ask U.S. forces to stay any longer.