Iraq handover date postponed again

The target date for putting Iraqi authorities in charge of security in all 18 provinces has slipped back yet again, to at least July.

The target date for putting Iraqi authorities in charge of security in all 18 provinces has slipped back yet again, to at least July.

The delay, noted in a US Defence Department report to Congress on progress and problems in Iraq, highlights the difficulties in developing Iraqi police forces and the slow pace of economic and political progress in some areas.

It is the second time this year the target date for completing what is known as "Provincial Iraqi Control" has been pushed back. The Pentagon report submitted to Congress hinted at the possibility of further delays.

The intent is to give the provincial governments control over security in their area as a step towards lessening - and eventually ending - the US security role.

Thus far seven of the 18 provinces have reverted to Iraqi control.

Without mentioning a timetable, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq, Lt Gen Ray Odierno, told reporters in Baghdad on Thursday that the transition to Iraqi security control is moving ahead at a deliberate pace.

"We go through this very carefully to ensure that we are able to maintain security for the Iraqi people," Odierno said. "We will not give back any of the hard-fought gains because we tried to rush this process."

Later, US President George Bush said there was progress in local communities in Iraq but that people were dissatisfied with the central government.

"Part of the reason why there is not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. Sort of an interesting comment, I heard somebody say: 'Where is Iraq's Mandela?'

"Well, Iraq's Mandela is dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas."

It was a reference to the charismatic former leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who helped reconcile the nation after decades of racial division, and remains a respected world figure today.

Bush acknowledged that progress has lagged since his announcement in January that the target would be reached in November of this year.

"The goals are the same," Bush said. "Have we achieved them as fast? No, we haven't. But, however, having not achieved them doesn't mean we ought to quit. It means we ought to work hard to achieve the goals, because the end result is the same, whether the goal is done in November or in July."

Bush said it was important to take the threats being made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously, but that he was committed to working with other nations to convince the Iranian regime to peacefully give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons programme.

"The reason why is because it's very important for us to take the threats coming out of the mouth of the president of Iran very seriously," he said. "This is a person who consistently talks about the use of force on Israel, for example, and Israel is our very firm and strong ally."

He was asked about a recent statement by France's foreign minister that the international community should prepare for the possibility of war in the event Iran obtains atomic weapons - although he later stressed the focus is still on diplomatic pressures.

"I have consistently stated I am hopeful we can convince the Iranian regime to give up" any nuclear ambitions it has," said Bush.

Bush also expressed regret that innocent civilians were killed in a shooting on Sunday in Baghdad involving Blackwater USA security guards. Iraqi officials said at least 11 people died.

The president said he was eager to find out precisely what happened, but said his "thoughts and prayers go out to the families."

Earlier, Odierno had said a seven-month-old security operation in Iraq had reduced violence by 50% in Baghdad but he acknowledged that civilians were still dying at too high a rate.

He told reporters that car bombs and suicide attacks in Baghdad have fallen to their lowest level in a year, and civilian casualties have dropped from a high of about 32 to 12 per day.

He also said violence in Baghdad had seen a 50%decrease, although he did not provide details about how the numbers were obtained and said that was short of the military's objectives.

"What we do know is that there has been a decline in civilian casualties, but I would say again that it's not at the level we want it to be," Odierno said. "There are still way too many civilian casualties inside of Baghdad and Iraq."

Al-Qaida in Iraq was "increasingly being pushed out of Baghdad", "seeking refuge outside" the capital and "even fleeing Iraq", Odierno said.

Iraqi military commander Lt Gen Abboud Qanbar said that before the surge, one third of Baghdad's 507 districts were under insurgent control.

"Now, only five to six districts can be called hot areas," he said. "Al-Qaida now is left only with booby-trapped cars and roadside bombs as their only weapons, which cannot be called quality operations, and they do not worry us."

Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US should set a firm date for withdrawing its troops from Iraq, otherwise the Iraqi leadership will do little to reorganise its armed forces.

A Kremlin statement said Putin was due to put the comments to a group of visiting international academics during a meeting in the Black Sea port of Sochi tomorrow.

"I agree with President Bush that it is possible, and necessary, to withdraw only when the Iraqi leadership itself, the Iraqi government, will be able to guarantee its internal security," Putin said, according to the Kremlin transcript.

"Where exactly do we differ? I consider that it is better anyway to set a certain date for withdrawal because as long as it is not clear when American forces will leave Iraq, there will be no internal motivation for the Iraqi leadership to deal with organisation of its army and its security services," Putin said.

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