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Iraqi security forces strain budget, PM says

BAGHDAD — Iraq's government payroll has become so heavy with soldiers and police that it's now hindering reconstruction, Iraq's prime minister warned Wednesday, raising the possibility of security force cutbacks just as U.S. combat troops are pulling out.

It's doubtful whether Nouri al-Maliki would ever slash too deeply into Iraq's police and military with U.S. forces due to end combat missions next August. But it may reflect shifting priorities as violence eases and the government faces increased demands to spend money on rebuilding roads, electrical grids and other services crippled from years of war and neglect.

There also is likely a bit of election posturing in al-Maliki's words. He is hoping promises of security improvements and civic projects will benefit his party in January's national elections. But low oil prices have kept Iraq's budget tight and may force some tough choices on spending.

Al-Maliki said more of next year's budget should go to reconstruction rather than security, raising questions about where cuts could be made. About three-quarters of Iraq's $58.6 billion budget this year was used to develop and pay security ministries and the more than 640,000 army and police forces, he said.

"This is a dangerous phenomena for the Iraqi economy," he told a group of businessmen gathered for an economic forum in Baghdad. "Instead of allocating 74 percent of this year's budget to pay salaries, we think that a big part of our budget should go to construction."

The Iraqi government had to slash its 2009 budget twice as oil prices plummeted from a high of nearly $150 per barrel. Crude prices have since slightly rebounded, allowing Iraqi lawmakers to propose a higher $70 billion budget for next year — but still far below its spending needs.

The focus on reconstruction rather than security is a departure for al-Maliki, who has staked much of his political reputation on the steady decline in violence over the past two years.

But major attacks still occur. In August, nearly 100 people died in twin suicide truck bombings that targeted the finance and foreign ministries in central Baghdad.

Al-Maliki faced a barrage of criticism over the security lapses that allowed the attackers to drive the trucks past checkpoints and position them near the ministries. He ordered the number of checkpoints increased and concrete blasts walls erected in areas where he had previously ordered them removed.

His administration also insisted that security forces needed more weapons and equipment.

The U.S. military has said Iraq's budget shortfall has derailed its effort to buy enough ships, planes and weapons. It also has slowed the construction of a national supply chain to feed and fuel the forces.

"I think the budget is a problem for them to equip and outfit the military the way they want," said Maj. Gen. John Johnson, who oversees U.S. military planning in Iraq.

Questions also remain about whether Iraq can meet its commitment under its budget constraints to continue to pay groups of former Sunni insurgents, known as Awakening Councils, who joined forces with the Americans to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

Awakening Council leaders have complained of delays in receiving their salaries from the Shiite-dominated government, where distrust of the groups runs deep.

"There have been a number ... who were not paid because of the budget shortfall this year, " Johnson said.

The government was expected to make double payments this month to make up the missed payments, Johnson said.

With security improvements, Iraq has turned more of its attention to delivering essential services like clean drinking water and electricity.

On Iraq's Gulf coast, Iran has agreed to provide regular shipments of drinking water to the drought-stricken area, according to an official in the Basra provincial council.

The accord calls for Iranian ships to deliver about 650,000 liters of drinking water every two days, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The first water shipment arrived last week and the second docked in the Gulf port of Fao on Monday, the official said.

The area is facing a combination of severe drought and loss of drinking water supplies as sea water pushes into marshlands and low rivers.

Also Wednesday, Iraq returned 36 Iranian opposition members it had held for three months to an exile camp, while the government works to find a country other than Iran that will take them, said spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh

Camp Ashraf contains nearly 3,500 members of the People's Mujahedeen of Iran who have been confined there since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"We demand the international community help provide a place for them because they are unwanted persons," al-Dabbagh said. "We are looking for a country that is willing to accept them."

The 36 were detained in July following a deadly melee between the exiles and Iraqi security forces at the camp. Iraqi judicial authorities did not pursue charges against the men after their detention and ordered them freed.

The group, known as MEK, operated for years in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military turned over responsibility for Camp Ashraf to the Iraqis on Jan. 1. The U.S. considers MEK a terrorist organization, though one that has provided the Americans with intelligence on Iran. The European Union removed it from its terror list this year.

Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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