updated 5/5/2009 6:49:36 PM ET 2009-05-05T22:49:36

Iraq's prime minister said Tuesday that Iraqi forces are ready to take over their own security as the U.S. begins to withdraw but that the government still needs help gathering intelligence to target insurgents and prevent attacks.

Nouri al-Maliki also stressed his government's decision not to extend the June 30 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas includes northern areas of Mosul and Diyala, despite continued insurgent activity there.

"The timetable for the U.S withdrawal is a definite date," al-Maliki told The Associated Press, speaking aboard his plane en route home from Paris. "We will not accept any change."

The comments were the firmest yet by al-Maliki, underscoring the government's determination not to allow any extension of the deadlines set out in a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, which also calls for a full U.S. withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.

Last month, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, said he was worried Iraqi forces won't be ready to assume full responsibility for Mosul by the end of June. U.S. commanders also have raised concern over Iraqi readiness to take over control in the volatile province of Diyala.

Al-Maliki dismissed such concerns, pointing out the security pact allows the government to ask for U.S. assistance if needed.

'No delay in U.S. withrawal'
"There will be no delay in the U.S withdrawal, even in Mosul or Diyala," he said. "If there will be a need for the U.S forces, they will be available outside the cities."

U.S. combat troops largely pulled out of many cities in 2005 and 2006 but returned a year later as part of the U.S. troop surge that was designed to protect civilians from Shiite and Sunni extremists living in their neighborhoods.

However, al-Maliki acknowledged Iraqis need more help with intelligence gathering as the fight becomes less about ground battles and more about targeting potential sleeper cells of al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents believed responsible for staging most car bombings and suicide attacks.

"Realistically, the troops and weapons will not play the fundamental role," he said. "The main thing we need is intelligence information coming through about the penetration into al-Qaida."

There's a lot at stake for al-Maliki, who faces national elections expected toward the end of the year.

The departure of heavily armed U.S. combat troops from bases inside the cities is important psychologically to many Iraqis, eager to see Iraqi forces in charge after six years U.S. military occupation. But a series of high-profile bombings and other attacks recently has chipped away at confidence in security gains that have led to a sharp decline in violence.

In the latest attack, a roadside bomb exploded in the center of Mosul on Tuesday, killing an Iraqi civilian.

U.S. officials have played down the Iraqi decision not to extend the deadlines, saying the military plans to abide by the security pact's terms and that it's up to the Iraqi government to request an extension.

Seeking foreign investment
Al-Maliki indicated there could be some leeway, a few days if needed, to deal with logistics and relocating American troops and their equipment from the many outposts and joint bases inside Baghdad and other cities.

The prime minister returned home Tuesday after a trip to London and Paris where he was seeking to boost foreign investment in Iraq. He promised Monday not to allow groups to use Iraq as a base from which to strike neighboring countries while insisting Iraq would protect its airspace from incursions by countries seeking to root out guerrillas.

Kurdish security officials have said Iran used helicopters flying parallel to the border to fire on Iranian Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq on Saturday and struck with artillery on Monday.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it demanded Tehran immediately halt the shelling of border villages and warned such "extremely dangerous Iranian military violations" of Iraqi territory could harm their relations.

The ministry also said it summoned the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday and handed him a letter of protest. Tehran did not have an immediate comment — its military has often shelled the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, which seeks greater rights for Iranian Kurds and which Tehran accuses of launching attacks inside Iran from Iraqi bases.

The ministry statement accused the Iranians of using jet fighters, helicopters and artillery shelling and said a large number of villagers had been wounded.

Iraq said it understood Iran's need to secure its borders but stressed that should be done through contacts and dialogue between the two countries.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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