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US General: Delay in Key Iraqi Ministries Will Affect US Troop Levels

A senior U.S. military officer says the delay in appointing new Iraqi Defense and Interior ministers will have an effect on efforts to withdraw significant numbers of U.S. troops from the country this year. But the officer says the main factor will be the security situation, rather than political developments.

Brigadier General Carter Ham, who works on regional conflicts for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the delay in naming ministers of defense and interior will have an impact because those ministries have the most direct involvement in issues that affect security. The Defense Ministry controls the army and the Interior Ministry handles the police. "For us from the security standpoint, those are the two key ministries, and having stability, having responsible, capable leaders in those ministries is clearly beneficial to everyone," he said.

Senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have said it is crucial for Iraq to have ministers of defense and interior who are competent, and who govern from the center, rather than advocating the interests of any one ethnic or political group. Senior officials have also spoken of the importance of building competence at all levels of the two ministries, in order to provide the support the armed forces need. On Tuesday, General Ham said the development in the ministries needs to parallel the development of the security forces themselves. "You need that same kind of effort and improvement at the ministerial level. (It's a) little difficult to do while there is still some uncertainty as to leader of each of those ministries will be," he said.

Senior U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed the desire for as many as 25 per cent of the 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to leave by the end of the year. But U.S. officials say there is no timetable and troop levels will be determined by the security situation and related factors. The U.S. commander in Iraq is expected to make his next recommendations on troop levels by mid-June.

On Tuesday, General Ham also identified the Iraqi city of Ramadi as the current focus of much of the conflict between U.S.-led forces and insurgents. He said the insurgents want to establish a base in the area, in order to have easy access to the Syrian border to the west and Baghdad to the east. "Well, Ramadi is a tough area, probably the most contentious city right now inside Iraq. I think that's not an overstatement. It's a tough place right now," he said.

He said U.S. forces in Ramadi have frequent clashes with insurgents, and they have not yet been able to give Iraqi forces a leading role in the city, as they have in the surrounding areas.