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POWER HANDOVER

Bremer says Iraqi forces unprepared to handle security

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi security forces will not be ready to protect the country against insurgents by the June 30 handover of power, the top US administrator said yesterday -- an assessment aimed at defending the continued heavy presence of US troops here even after an Iraqi government takes over.

The unusually blunt comments from L. Paul Bremer III were made amid a weekend of new fighting that pushed the death toll for US troops in April to 99, already the record for a single month in Iraq and approaching the number killed during the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein last year.

The military had always planned to remain after June 30, when the United States is to handover sovereignty to Iraq. In recent months, coalition officials acknowledged the transfer of security will be significantly slower than hoped because Iraqi forces were not prepared.

But Bremer said the fighting across the country this month exposed the depth of the problems inside the security forces.

''Events of the past two weeks show that Iraq still faces security threats and needs outside help to deal with them. Early this month, the foes of democracy overran Iraqi police stations and seized public buildings in several parts of the country," he said. ''Iraqi forces were unable to stop them."

''It is clear that Iraqi forces will not be able, on their own, to deal with these threats by June 30 when an Iraqi government assumes sovereignty," Bremer said in a statement issued by the US coalition.

With US-led forces fighting on two fronts and insurgent violence flaring elsewhere, at least 99 US troops have been killed in combat since April 1. In the latest violence, five Marines and five soldiers were killed Saturday.

Over the weekend, at least 40 Iraqis were killed, bringing the Iraqi death toll in April to more than 1,050.

Iraq's defense minister -- Ali Allawi, a Shi'ite Muslim appointed by US officials two weeks ago -- announced his two top generals, a Sunni and a Kurd, establishing representatives of the country's three main communities in the senior defense positions.

The army's top general will be General Babakir Zebari, who commanded Kurdish militiamen in the north for decades and fought alongside coalition troops during last year's invasion. The chief of staff will be Amer al-Hashimi, a Sunni and former general in the Iraqi infantry until he retired in 1997.

US officials have been rebuilding the military, arranging the training of recruits and naming Allawi as its civilian head.

But the recent violence has shown the weaknesses and conflicted feelings of the armed forces. An army battalion refused to join the Marines in the siege of Fallujah, saying they did not intend to fight fellow Iraqis. During the Shi'ite militia uprising in the south, many police abandoned their stations, realizing they were badly outgunned or sympathizing with the militia's cause.

In Husaybah, near the Syrian border, insurgents ambushed a Marine patrol Saturday morning, sparking a battle throughout the day with up to 150 gunmen, a Marine spokesman, Lieutenant Eric Knapp, said. Five Marines and up to 30 insurgents were killed, he said. Hospital officials said civilians were among the dead, as well as the town's police chief.

Fighting continued yesterday in Husaybah, which was sealed off by US forces. .

A day and a half of calm in the besieged city of Fallujah was broken yesterday when Marines battled gunmen around a mosque.

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