U.S. officials in Iraq say they want all independent militias to be dissolved, but they have backed off from setting a deadline for the groups to disband.
The question about the future of armed militias in Iraq is a sensitive subject in the aftermath of last month's terrorist bombing that killed a leading Muslim cleric and more than 80 others in the southern city, Najaf.
One particular concern is the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shi'ite Muslim organization which holds a seat on Iraq's governing council.
At a news briefing in Baghdad, U.S. officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority said groups like the Badr Brigade must be dissolved. "Independent militias do not have a place in the new Iraq," explained spokesman Dan Senor. "There are right now five, and there could be more down the road, avenues for those Iraqis who want to participate [and] play a role in Iraq's security. They can join the new Iraqi army, they can join the Iraq police force, they can join the facilities protection forces, they can join the civil defense force or they can join the border security guard."
Mr. Senor said clerics in Najaf were allowed unlicensed bodyguards for a few days after the August 29 blast that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, but he said that exception has now ended.
Journalists who have visited Najaf in recent days report armed men in plain clothes continue to circulate openly on the streets in apparent defiance of the U.S.-led coalition, and there have been complaints from leading Shi'ites that they must provide their own security if the coalition will not.
In response, a special police unit is being trained to protect shrines and clerics in the city, considered one of the holiest places for Shi'ite Muslims. U.S. officials say the unit could have up to 400 members when it is fully deployed.
In another development, the new senior British envoy to Iraq praised coalition efforts to restore essential services in the country, but acknowledged there is much more to do.
At a news conference four days after arriving in Baghdad, Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock said things must move faster, particularly on security, and he called for more involvement by Iraqis in restoring security and other services throughout the country.
"We have still a way to go. We all realize that," said Mr. Greenstock. "What is now being achieved is accumulating the results that are required. The results on electricity, water, sewerage, the provision of health, the provision of food, the provision of services throughout Iraq to my mind has got to be accelerated, because I want to see the response from the Iraqi people that eventually is an acceptance that what has been done fits what they want."
Ambassador Greenstock, who has until recently been Britain's chief representative at the United Nations, said his new job is to present Britain's views and support the interim administration in Iraq, and to rally British and international support to help the country's reconstruction.