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Iraq poised for 'significant' progress, says country's PM

Iraq has made 'huge progress' in the past year, wiping out the threat of a sectarian war and setting the stage for significant security gains, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Tuesday.

Iraq's prime minister on Tuesday said hiscountry has made "huge progress" in the past year, wiping out the threat of a sectarian war and setting the stage for "significant" security gains.

In an interview with CBC News correspondent Nalah Ayed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki played down reports that the country remains largely dysfunctional, is mired in sectarian violence and has an ineffectual government.

"I disagree with the idea that progress in the past 12 months has been minimal. If we look back six months or eight months, we would find huge progress. Statistics and field studies have confirmed that," al-Maliki said.

"A year ago, all elements of a sectarian war were present. This has disappeared entirely from the stage, and we have returned to national unity and national relationship.

"There has been huge progress."

Al-Maliki pointed to a U.S. report delivered to Congress on Monday that said levels of violence in Anbar province have dropped by 75 per cent since an American troop surge was launched in February.

That report, authored by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq,and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, concluded the surge has helpedreduce sectarian violence, and suggested as many as 30,000 American troops could return from Iraq by next July.

That would leave about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by mid-2008. Many Democrats are calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.

Withdrawal will be 'appropriate'

U.S. PresidentGeorge W. Bush is expected to announce his Iraq strategy during a prime-time address on Thursday night.

Al-Maliki, who predicted "significant" progress in Iraq's security situation, said he believes Bush's recommendations "must be acceptable and part of the success of the great mission that we have taken upon ourselves.

"I believe that PresidentBush will deal with seriousness and acceptance and if there is a need to improve or change, then it is natural that it will be based on these recommendations," he said.

"But for sure, the withdrawal will not be sudden or greater than the security needs of Iraq. It will be appropriate and proportional to the need of having these troops present."

Earlier this week, al-Maliki told Iraq's parliament that Iraqi forces weren't yet ready to take control of the country's security

Al-Maliki, who heads a fragile coalition in Iraq's 275-seat parliament, has been criticized for failing to pass laws to help share political power among the country'sthree main ethnic and religious groups: Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

Last year, a meeting between Bush and al-Maliki was abruptly cancelled after leaked documents suggested a top White House advisor doubted the Iraqi leader's ability to suppress violence in his country. Bush later played downthe memo and expressed his full support for the Iraqi leader.

Last week, a report on Iraq by the Government Accountability Office,the independent and non-partisan investigative arm of Congress,found the Iraqi government has not met 11 of its 18 political and security goals.

Sunnis, Shias working together

Al-Maliki blamed al-Qaeda for feeding sectarian violence, but said the organization's cells been choked off inside Iraq.

"What drives me to believe that we will progress further is that al-Qaeda does not command any more strongholds in which it can live, organize, plan and execute," he said.

The prime minister acknowledged that sectarianism still exists, but said it is no longer a major problem in "every moment and every encounter."

The fact that Sunnis and Shias are fighting alongside each other in Iraq's new security forces is evidence of that, he said.

"When blood is spilled among Sunnis and Shias in fighting al-Qaeda, this [is] evidence of a big transformation," he said.

"I call on whoever offered criticisms to look at the facts and perhaps if he did, he will change his mind if he truly wanted to know what's happening on the ground."

Public services will improve

Al-Maliki, who also acknowledged many Iraqis are living without basic necessities of life such as electricity and water, said the improved security situation will translate into better living conditions.

"We are achieving great successes in improving salaries, services, income and creating job opportunities for the unemployed and many other issues that can be manifested," he said.

"Our hope is that electricity is not cut off for even one second, or potable water, or energy. However, that's the nature of the challenge we face between us and the previous regime."

Al-Maliki blamed the lack of basic services on al-Qaeda and supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.

Insurgents worsenedthe confusion surrounding the fall of the former dictator by targeting infrastructure, and the lack of security has made it difficult to maintain services, he said.

"That's why each day we see attacks on electrical poles, electricity stations, water purification centres, oil pipelines."

With files from the Associated Press