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Iraqi leader forecasts U.S. troop reduction

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks with NBC's Richard Engel about the future of U.S. troops in Iraq and his country's security.

In his first interview as the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki tried to reach out to the American people. He said he has a new priority — to get his own security forces ready soon, so American troops can go home.

Al-Maliki's comments, made to NBC News, anticipate Thursday's meeting of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will confer at the White House on the violence in Iraq and the need for coalition forces.

On Wednesday the White House said the establishment of Iraq’s new government was an opportunity to reassess the need for American military forces but that any discussion of troop withdrawals would be premature.

Both Bush and Blair's ratings have declined sharply in the polls, and both leaders are under pressure to make troop cutbacks. The two leaders will hold a news conference Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

On Wednesday — a day when 18 Iraqis and one more American solider were killed in bombings and drive-by shootings — al-Maliki had a message for the mothers of American soldiers serving in his country.

“We will do our best — all we can — in speeding up the process of sending the troops back to their families,” he said.

Al-Maliki says his own security forces should be able to take over from coalition troops in 18 months.

“Considering our determination to build our forces,” he says, “we will be finished by the end of 2007.”

But U.S. troops in Iraq, he said, must stay for now — pulling them out, he said, would be too “destabilizing.”

Al-Maliki sees American forces playing a very different role 18 months from now.

First, there would be fewer American troops. And, instead of fighting, they would be in a “supporting” role, mostly confined to their bases, where they would provide air support, logistics and training — and be a rapid reaction force.

“They would be contingency forces,” al-Maliki says, “to confront emergencies that could challenge this still relatively new nation.”

In NBC News’ 45-minute meeting, al-Maliki said he will personally oversee the defense and interior ministries, and he showed his take-charge style, saying, “As the commander in chief of the armed forces, I will deal [with] security myself.”

But U.S. military commanders predict that insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, will intensify attacks to try to discredit al-Maliki.

“Zarqawi is bloodthirsty,” al-Maliki says. “And we must work together to break the back all of such groups.”

But al-Maliki says his success depends on his army and police — which, he admits, have been infiltrated by gangs and militias.