A U.S. Defense Department official has confirmed the essence of a report in Thursday's Washington Times newspaper that the delay in forming a government in Iraq is potentially delaying any decision to reduce U.S. troop levels in the country.
The Washington Times quotes an unnamed U.S. official as saying he does not expect any recommendation to reduce troop levels until after an Iraqi government is formed. The official is quoted as saying that the coalition commander in Iraq, General George Casey, is not in a position to make such a recommendation, and will not be until a new government is in place.
General Casey has said he would make his next recommendation on U.S. troop levels during the next three months, and senior officials say they will base their decisions largely on the general's recommendation. The general has also listed the stability of the Iraqi political situation and the development of capabilities in key ministries as factors in his decision-making process.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirmed that on Thursday.
"Clearly, development of ministries is important," he said. "Getting ministry [and] cabinet officials identified, selected, in position and working the tough problems that Iraq has in many different sectors is important."
U.S. officials say the most important ministries from a security perspective are the Defense Ministry, which will have to support the army, and the Interior Ministry, which will have to support the police. Whitman says other factors that are part of General Casey's calculation include the strength of the insurgency, the development of Iraq's new security forces and the economic situation.
"Obviously that contributes to improving the security situation," noted the Pentagon spokesman. "As you improve the security situation, that permits the Iraqi security forces to assume more responsibility for their own security, and that creates the conditions that certainly would allow for General Casey to take a look at when you wouldn't require as many coalition forces."
Indeed, General Casey summoned 700 extra troops to Baghdad earlier this month from a base in Kuwait, saying he needed them to help secure the capital until a new government is formed. In all, there are about 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Officials have privately said they hope to reduce that to about 100,000 by the end of the year, but they stress that any decision will depend on the overall security situation in the country.
Many U.S. officials, including President Bush, have urged Iraqi leaders to form their new government and begin taking the steps necessary to help bring peace to the country. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's latest comment came on Tuesday.
"I hope they'll sort it out soon," he said. "It's important that the key political figures in that country recognize that 10 or 12 million Iraqis went out and voted, and it's their responsibility to fashion a government under that successful vote, and come forward to the parliament with their proposals. And the sooner they do it, the better."
Secretary Rumsfeld said last week that the delay in forming a government is contributing to the ongoing violence in Iraq. He believes that just forming a broad-based government would provide a rallying point for moderate Iraqis and would reduce support for the insurgency and for groups that want to foment sectarian conflict.