Iraqi President: U.S. Troops Should Stay

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Iraq's president said Tuesday it would be "complete nonsense" to ask foreign troops to leave the country now, although some could depart by year's end. Officials began the final vote tally from elections to produce a government to confront the insurgency.

Meanwhile, Iraq reopened its borders Tuesday and commercial flights took off from Baghdad International Airport as authorities eased security restrictions imposed to protect last weekend's landmark voting.

In Baghdad, about 200 election workers Tuesday began the second — and possibly final — stage of the count. They reviewed tally sheets prepared by workers who counted ballots starting Sunday night at the 5,200 polling centers across the country and began crunching the numbers into 80 computer terminals. Officials said no figures were expected to be released Tuesday.

The Sunday ballot, which occurred without catastrophic rebel attacks, raised hopes that a new Iraqi government would be able to assume greater responsibility for security, hastening the day when the 170,000 U.S. and other foreign troops can go home.

During a news conference, President Ghazi al-Yawer was asked whether the presence of foreign troops might be fueling the Sunni Arab revolt by encouraging rebel attacks.

"It's only complete nonsense to ask the troops to leave in this chaos and this vacuum of power," al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, said.

He said foreign troops should leave only after Iraq's security forces are built up, the country's security situation has improved and some pockets of terrorists are eliminated.

"By the end of this year, we could see the number of foreign troops decreasing," al-Yawer said.

Al-Yawer had been a strong critic of some aspects of the U.S. military's performance in Iraq, including the three-week Marine siege of the Sunni rebel city of Fallujah in April.

Al-Yawer helped negotiate an end to that siege. But the city fell into the hands of insurgents and religious zealots, forcing the Marines to recapture Fallujah last November in some of the heaviest urban combat for American forces since the Vietnam war.

"There were some mistakes" in the occupation "but to be fair ... I think all in all it was positive, the contribution of the foreign forces in Iraq," al-Yawer said. "It was worth it."

Later Tuesday, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said Iraq would only ask U.S. and other forces to leave when the country's own troops were capable of taking on insurgents.

"We don't want to have foreign troops in our country, but at the same time we believe that these forces should stay for some time until we are able to control the borders and establish a new modern army and we have efficient intelligence," Shaalan told reporters. "At that time ... we'll ask them to leave."

With the election complete and the ballots safely in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities eased the severe security measures that had been put in place to protect the voters and polling centers.

Royal Jordanian Airlines and Iraqi Airways resumed flights to and from Baghdad. Cars, trucks and buses began crossing the border between Iraq and Syria at Tanaf. However, the Yarubiya crossing point which leads to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

A five-mile line of trucks loaded with goods was waiting on the Syrian side to cross, the official said.

The security measures for Sunday's vote included an election day ban on most private vehicles and extended hours for the nighttime curfew. The restrictions were credited with preventing rebels from pulling off catastrophic attacks, although more than 40 people were killed in about 100 attacks on or near polling stations.

A statement attributed to an al-Qaida affiliate dismissed Sunday's elections as "theatrics" and promised to continue waging "holy war" against the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

In Baghdad, an election official said marked ballots, which were counted at polling stations after voting ended, have been sent to Baghdad. The ballots will not be recounted unless there are challenges or discrepancies in the tally sheets, officials said.

A Shiite clerical-backed alliance was expected to win the most number of seats in the 275-member National Assembly. But the alliance is not expected to win the two-thirds majority required to name a prime minister without support from other parties.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's ticket was expected to finish second among the 111 candidate lists.

Officials have not released turnout figures, although it appeared that many Sunni Arabs stayed away from the polls, either out of fear of insurgent reprisals or opposition to an election under U.S. occupation.

That has raised concern about further alienation among the country's Sunni Arabs, who form about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people but whose role in the country's educational, technical and intellectual elite is much greater.

Although security conditions have remained stable enough to relax the election restrictions, there were still scattered incidents reported around the country.

In the northern city of Mosul, clashes broke out early Tuesday in the eastern neighborhood of Nablus between insurgents and Iraqi National Guards, officials said. One person was killed and another injured.

Two policemen were killed when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded on a street in the Kurdish-run city of Irbil.

In the south, U.S. troops opened fire on detainees rioting at the Camp Bucca prison facility, killing four prisoners, the U.S. command said. The unrest broke out Monday during a search for contraband and quickly spread. Detainees hurled rocks and fashioned crude weapons from materials in their quarters, the statement said.

The purported al-Qaida statement appeared Monday on an Islamist Web site.

"These elections and their results ... will increase our strength and intention to getting rid of injustice," the statement said.

As the vote count continues, the leader of the main Shiite coalition pledged to build a government that would include representatives of all of Iraq's people.

"We are still insisting to form a partnership government including all segments of the Iraqi people," Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim of the United Iraqi Alliance told Al-Arabiya television.