U.S. should stop arming Sunni militias - PM Maliki

Sun Jun 17, 2007 4:09pm BST

BAGHDAD, June 17 (Reuters) - The United States runs the risk of creating new militias in Iraq if it arms Sunni Arab tribesmen indiscriminately to battle al Qaeda, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Maliki gave the first indication his government disagrees with the U.S. military policy of arming and equipping Sunni Arab tribes to fight al Qaeda militants under a model first used in Anbar province.

"We want to arm some tribes that want to side with us but on condition that we should be well aware of the tribe's background and sure that it is not connected with terror," Maliki said.

"Some (U.S.) field commanders make mistakes since they do not know the facts about people they deal with. I believe the Coalition forces do not know the background of the tribes," he told Newsweek on Friday.

"They make mistakes by arming tribes sometimes, and this is dangerous because this will create new militias," he said.

Maliki also appeared to reject criticism of his government's performance in meeting three key political benchmarks aimed at promoting national reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein and who now form the backbone of Iraq's bloody insurgency.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Baghdad at the weekend to push Iraq's political leaders on those reconciliation targets and told them Washington was disappointed with their lack of progress.

But Maliki said in the interview that drafts of three key laws -- a revenue-sharing oil law, provincial elections and a law allowing former members of Saddam's Baath party to return to public office -- would be handed to parliament next week.

U.S. forces have just completed the placement of an extra 28,000 soldiers in Baghdad and other areas as part of a major security crackdown that is seen as a last-ditch attempt to drag Iraq back from the brink of civil war.

It is also meant to buy Maliki's Shi'ite-led government time to reach Washington's benchmarks.

Senior U.S. military leaders said last week they would cautiously continue arming and training tribal police units and would expand the policy out of western Anbar, once the most dangerous areas of Iraq, into other volatile provinces.

The strategy was developed as a new way to fight Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in so-called sanctuaries where there were no regular security forces.

Some senior military figures voiced reservations similar to Maliki's. Lieutenant-General Martin Dempsey, formerly in charge of restructuring Iraq's security forces, supported the strategy but raised doubts about the role these groups would have after the fight against al Qaeda.