BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government defended its efforts to stabilize the country on the eve of the release of a key U.S. progress report but said yesterday that it needed more help and was not ready for a timetable on the withdrawal of American forces.
Iraq also issued a new appeal to neighboring countries to step up assistance at a conference that drew delegates from across the Middle East and representatives of the United States, United Nations, and the Group of Eight industrialized nations.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said bordering countries had been slow to fulfill promises to stem the flow of fighters and weapons into Iraq. "There is movement, but it has not reached the level we want or hope," he said.
"Iraq's failure means the failure of the whole region, and no one, in my opinion, will win as a result of this," Zebari warned. "What is happening in Iraq and what will happen in Iraq will decide the future of this region."
The conference occurred a day before congressional hearings were to begin in Washington with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, and military commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, delivering reports on Iraq's progress amid a debate over calls to start bringing American troops home.
The two are expected to point to some improvements in security since this year's troop buildup but say that progress toward power-sharing agreements among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has lagged.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraqi security forces had come far but needed more time to prepare before they could take over their own security. He pointed to a decrease in the number of kidnappings and other sectarian attacks but gave no figures.
"We feel that there is progress on the security side, particularly in Baghdad," he told reporters. "When things get better and the security situation gets better, the Iraqi government will be able to talk about a timetable."
Zebari warned that the violence could spill across Iraq's borders into other nations.
"Terrorism should be fought . . . because the fires that they are igniting in the land of the two rivers [Iraq] will spread outside the borders and endanger neighboring countries," he added.
He did not identify any country by name, but the Iraqi and U.S. governments have accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq and have said Iran is supplying Shiite militias with weapons - claims that both countries deny.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Reza Baqiri said his country "wants to help in healing Iraq's wounds for humanitarian reasons" but gave mixed signals about Tehran's willingness to work with the United States to achieve stability in the country.
"The regional matters in our area should be solved in the hands of the governments, states and people of this region," he told reporters after the conference.
The U.S. military reported that an American soldier was killed yesterday in fighting in western Baghdad. On Friday, a Marine died in Iraq's
Anbar province in a noncombat-related incident, the command said.
As of Saturday, at least 3,760 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
At least 35 Iraqis also were reported killed or found dead yesterday, including 12 whose bullet-riddled bodies were handcuffed and blindfolded and showed signs of torture.
The deadliest attack was a raid by gunmen against a police station that killed at least nine people. Police and witnesses said five policemen and four civilians were killed before the attackers were driven off with the help of residents in the predominantly Sunni village of Hajaj, 150 miles north of Baghdad.
- Associated Press