US defense secretary coaxes Iraq on political front

( Lat ) - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, unsatisfied with the pace of political reconciliation in Iraq, laid down an implicit deadline by urging Iraqi leaders to pass key laws by summer while repeating his warning that U.S. troops will not patrol Iraqi streets indefinitely.

Gates also described as ``mixed'' the results of two-month-old military operations to curb violence in Baghdad, which have included tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops.

``Our commitment to Iraq is long term, but it is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly,'' Gates said at a news conference.

Gates pledged that the United States would continue training and modernizing Iraqi security forces to enable Iraq to defend itself from attack from abroad. But he made clear that in the future, U.S. troops could pull back from the day-to-day mission of providing security and combating militants. He stopped short of referring to a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

U.S. commanders have long stressed that the military cannot bring about peace in Iraq without political progress, and Gates on Friday called the Baghdad security plan ``a strategy for buying time for progress toward justice and reconciliation.''

He urged Iraq's parliament to pass legislation on provincial elections, the exploitation of the country's vast oil resources, the status of former members of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein and other issues before the lawmakers recess this summer. ``These measures will not fix all of the problems in Iraq, but they will manifest the will of the entire government of Iraq to be a government for all the people of Iraq in the future.''

Asked how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had responded, Gates said Maliki had reminded him that the parliament is independent, suggesting he could make no assurances on the legislation.

Hasan Suneid, a lawmaker and adviser to Maliki, said the Iraqi government would like to see both the oil legislation and de-Baathification proposal pass but at their own pace. ``These demands are already Iraqi demands,'' he said. ``The most important thing is to achieve discussion of these plans. Time is irrelevant.''

Gates, after a day of meetings with U.S. commanders and Iraqi leaders, offered a less upbeat assessment of the Baghdad security plan than he did March 18, when he said, ``So far, so good.''

``It's not a surprise that the results are mixed at this point, and there probably will be tough days to come,'' he said, pointing to both ``positive'' and ``negative things happening.''

Referring to a recent string of suicide bombings, Gates said he believed the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq had ``declared war'' not just on Shiite Muslims but on the entire country, killing men, women and children from all ethnic groups and sects. ``They are resorting to these huge bombs because the other tactics, frankly, have not been working very well.''

On Friday, a spokesman for the U.N. human rights office in Baghdad said the organization would not report Iraqi civilian casualty figures in its next report, to be released next week. For months, the totals have been a key gauge of violence in Iraq and the government's attempts to bring the rule of law.

``The reason behind that is we have not been given the numbers,'' said Said Arikat, a spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. ``The minister of health would not release it. They did not give us a reason. I don't know why.'' Arikat added that his office made a complaint to the government.

Qasim Allawi, a Ministry of Health spokesman, accused the United Nations of releasing ``wrong numbers'' to the public. He said statistics from his ministry, along with casualties data from the Ministry of Interior and Defense, would be handed to a central body. The government, he said, would announce the figures.

In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi troops clashed with gunmen near a Shiite mosque in a southwestern neighborhood before Friday prayers. Two suspected insurgents were killed in the firefight, the U.S. military said in a statement.

The military also announced that a rocket attack Thursday on an American base in Mahmudiyah, about 15 miles south of Baghdad, had killed a Marine.

In Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, gunmen attacked a convoy carrying Amar al-Hakim, the son of influential Shiite religious leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, seriously wounding two bodyguards.

Police said Friday they discovered 18 bodies across Baghdad, all handcuffed, blindfolded and shot several times.

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