Iraq dep PM.
(photo credit: AP)
International forces must not abandon Iraq while the situation there is still volatile, even though Iraqi forces are assuming a greater role in securing the country, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said Monday.
"I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run," Saleh told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"We need to be realist but not defeatist. We need to understand that there is a need of utmost urgency to deal with many of the problems of Iraq but we must not give in to panic," he said.
Iraqi forces will be in control of seven or eight of Iraq's 18 provinces by the end of the year, he said.
"We understand that this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community," Saleh said, but added: "For some time to come we will need the support of the international community."
Discussions at Blair's Downing Street office come after defense officials and a senior British minister claimed the Iraqi police and army could be given complete authority over Iraq's south within 12 months.
Blair's office denied that he would press Saleh to draw up an exit timetable for British troops, but acknowledged the talks were focussed on ensuring the process of handing over control of provinces continues "as quickly as possible."
"There is a process of transition and handover going on. Obviously we want this process to go as quickly as possible, but we will stay until the job is done," said a Downing Street spokesman, on customary condition of anonymity.
He said it would be "wrong to suggest that the prime minister is going to press him (Saleh) on an exit strategy."
British defense officials have repeatedly insisted they hope to hand over all security responsibilities in southern Iraq in 2007, cutting the number of troops based in the country from around 7,000 to between 3,000 and 4,000.
Foreign Office minister Kim Howells said Sunday he believed that within a year there would "be adequately trained Iraqi soldiers and security forces" to take over duties from British and coalition troops.
"I would be very surprised if there was not that kind of capacity taking on a lot of the work done by the coalition forces," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Defense Secretary Des Browne said Sunday he believed the coalition in southern Iraq was "quite far down the process of transferring responsibility to the Iraqis."
British forces relinquished control of the southern Muthana province in July and neighboring Dhi Qar province in September, leaving coalition troops in control of the southern Basra and Maysan provinces.
Officials at Britain's Ministry of Defense said Monday that Maysan was expected to be handed over to Iraqi authorities either next month or early next year.
Saleh told the BBC on Monday that he disagreed with the head of Britain's armed forces, Gen. Richard Dannatt, who recently claimed the presence of British troops had exacerbated security problems.
He acknowledged, however, that local Iraqi forces had to do more to assume leadership.
"As Iraqi troops assume responsibility for these provinces, the reliance on the coalition will lessen," Saleh told BBC radio.
Maj. Gen. Richard Sheriff, commander of British troops in the southern city of Basra, said Monday he believed his soldiers were winning the support of the local population.
"There is a paradox here. We are seen as occupiers, but we are also seen very firmly as part of the solution," Sherrif told BBC radio. "The people in the city here realize this place is not going to get better by magic."
A total of 119 British troops have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.