Two senior U.S. officials called on Iraqi leaders Tuesday to form a new government as quickly as possible, partly to provide a counterpart for negotiations on the future of U.S.-Iraq defense relations, after the scheduled U.S. military withdrawal at the end of next year.
The top U.S. military officer and a deputy secretary of state were in Baghdad at the same time conveying the same message to Iraqi leaders - it is past time to form a new government based on the results of the parliamentary elections four months ago.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, told reporters on his aircraft flying to Baghdad that from his point of view, a new government is needed - particularly to discuss the future of the U.S.-Iraq military relationship.
"We are in a position now where we have to wait for a new government to stand up," he said. "All indications are, on both sides, that there is a desire, strong desire, to have a long-term relationship. And the details of that and the vehicles for that strategic framework agreement or whatever are still out there to be determined."
U.S. officials have hinted that some U.S. troops might remain in Iraq after the scheduled withdrawal at the end of next year, if the Iraqi government wants them. The troops would be mainly for training. The head of U.S. training for the Iraqi Air Force said Tuesday the Iraqis will also need help with air defenses after 2011.
But Admiral Mullen said the interim deadline - five weeks from now - will be met. "We are on track to reduce the number of American forces here in Iraq to 50,000 or less by the first of September. I see absolutely nothing to negatively impact that," he said.
The admiral said the Iraqi security forces are ready to take full security responsibility, as U.S. forces transition to what is called an "advise and assist" mission.
Mullen appeared at a news conference with a Deputy Secretary of State, Jacob Lew, who said there is also a transition in the works on the civilian side of the U.S.-Iraq relationship.
"It will become more like a normal civilian-civilian relationship, but a little more so," said Lew. "We'll be in more places in order to continue the important work that we're doing and to take on some new tasks that have been defined as we've planned the transition working with our partners in the Iraqi government."
Lew said diplomats and other American civilians will face a security challenge as the U.S. military draws down its presence. But he said efforts are underway to find ways to provide the protection needed for the development work and other civilian programs to continue.