Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Monday said he was determined that the country's armed forces could be rebuilt quickly enough to allow United States troops to be withdrawn earlier than agreed. His statements came while thousands of security forces were deployed in preparations for the polls on Saturday to choose provincial leaders.
U.S. President Barack Obama has placed the planned drawdown of American troops from Iraq high on his policy agenda and met military commanders and top officials shortly after taking office last week.
Under an agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad in November, the U.S. military is slated to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and must have them out of cities by the end of this June.
On Monday, however, Maliki, campaigning for his party in Saturday's provincial elections, suggested the withdrawal could happen sooner, according to a government statement.
"We are determined to finish the arming of our forces to be able to take over the responsibility of security, after our success in the signature of the withdrawal agreement, which will speed up the withdrawal," the statement quoted him as telling an audience in Hilla, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Baghdad.
The U.S. military is currently taking a back seat to an increasingly large Iraqi force made up of 560,000 policemen and 260,000 military personnel, with the U.S. providing military logistical and air support on request. According to the Pentagon, 143,000 American troops are currently deployed in Iraq.
Maliki is making a big effort to campaign in the hope of winning support in provinces which are largely in the hands of rivals.
First voting in three years
The vote also will offer Sunni Arabs who boycotted the last provincial elections a chance to assume a share of local power.
The provincial vote, the first in three years, is seen as a crucial test of Iraq's stability after years of sectarian bloodshed between majority Shiite Muslims and once dominant Sunni Arabs nearly tore the country apart.
The election will choose provincial councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The councils in turn pick powerful governors.
Around 15 million of Iraq's approximately 28 million people have registered to vote, including more than 700,000 of the roughly 2.5 million Iraqis internally displaced after being driven from their homes by violence.
Iraqi election officials on Saturday ordered transport bans and night-time curfews to boost security on the eve of the provincial polls and on election day.
Iraq's borders will be sealed off as well as all civilian airports and provincial borders from 10 pm (1900 GMT) on Friday until 5 am (0200 GMT) on Feb. 1, the election commission announced.
Only vehicles with official authorization will be allowed to take to the streets of Baghdad and provincial capitals on the day of the polls.