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US Defense Secretary Says Iraq Cabinet Resignations May Help


The U.S. secretary of defense has downplayed the sudden resignations of six Iraqi cabinet ministers loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He spoke in Jordan after meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah. VOA Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the impact of the resignation of the six Sadrist cabinet ministers will depend on who is chosen to replace them.

"I think the impact that it has, that these resignations have, will depend, in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities, and whether those vacancies are used in a way that perhaps can further advance the reconciliation process. And I don't have anything specific in mind in that respect," Gates said. "But there is the opportunity to turn what might seem like a negative, potentially, into a positive development."

He told reporters it could actually help the reconciliation process if the jobs are filled by people who would broaden representation in the cabinet.

Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr says the resignations were prompted by the lack of a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He called massive protests last week to back up that demand. The Bush Administration has consistently rejected both Iraqi and domestic American calls for a withdrawal timetable.

The U.S. defense secretary's effort to put a positive spin on the abrupt cabinet resignations underscored the aim of his latest Middle East visit, to shore up regional support for the Iraqi government and counter the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

After the meeting in Amman, Jordan's King Abdullah issued a statement saying the only way to guarantee a better future for Iraq is to include all Iraqis in the political process.

The mainly Sunni Muslim leaders of the Arab League have repeatedly called for more Sunni participation in the Iraqi government.

The royal palace said the Jordanian monarch also made clear to the U.S. defense secretary that he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the core problem in the region. He urged Israel to respond positively to the Arab peace initiative, which was re-launched at a special Arab League summit in Riyadh last month. The king called it a "rare opportunity" for Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Gates is scheduled to visit Egypt and Israel on his Middle East tour. His departure for Cairo was delayed a day until Wednesday after a raging sandstorm shut down Cairo airport for most of Tuesday.