Iraq warns against early U.S. withdrawal

( AP ) - Iraq's deputy prime minister on Friday defended his government's progress in establishing security and ending political infighting, and warned that an early U.S. troop pullout would be disastrous for his country.

Barham Salih told a U.N. forum that the time had come to "define more clearly" the status of U.S.-led troops in Iraq, though he emphasized that Iraqi forces needed more time to take over security on their own.

Salih spoke during a U.N. discussion about the International Compact with Iraq - an ambitious plan to achieve a stable, united and democratic Iraq by 2012.

Many U.S. lawmakers, and at times, the Bush administration, have complained that Iraqi officials have been slow to meet key benchmarks, including assuming greater security responsibilities and an equitable division of the country's oil wealth. The complaints have fueled U.S. calls for a pullout of American troops.

Salih, speaking by video link, warned that an early withdrawal of U.S.-led forces "would cause a disaster for Iraq and the region." He said the way forward for his country was to develop the strength of the Iraqi forces to ensure they are self-reliant.

"But we need time and space," he said. "We need sustained support from the international community."

Last week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters Iraqi forces were ready for foreign troops to leave "any time they want" - comments that likely reflected Iraqi frustration over U.S. criticism of his government.

Al-Maliki later sought to soften his remarks, saying Iraq's security force was on the road to taking over from U.S. troops but was not there yet.

Outlining the progress already made, Salih noted that a bloc of politicians loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently ended its boycott of the government, as did the Iraqi Accordance Front, a 44-member group of Sunni politicians. Communication channels are also being opened with former insurgents as part of the reconciliation process, and progress is being made in investment law and anti-corruption efforts, he said.

But "it will take months and years before specific tangible outcomes are seen on the ground by the Iraqi people and the international community," he said.

The Iraq compact, launched in May in Egypt, outlines international aid for Iraq, including debt relief, but also sets tough commitments for the government, particularly measures aimed at granting Iraq's Sunni Arab minority a greater role in the political process.

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro urged donor nations to step up their pledges and aid.

" Iraq is in a difficult transition," Migiro said. "It is at this critical juncture that the government needs the support of the international community so that it can face the daunting challenges ahead."

At the launch of the compact, Saudi Arabia said it was still negotiating with Iraq over writing off Iraqi debt, and major creditors Kuwait and Russia failed to offer immediate debt relief - a disappointment to some Iraqis.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, meanwhile, said Washington would support enhancing the U.N. role in Iraq.

Khalilzad, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, wrote in an opinion piece in Friday's The New York Times, that the U.N. has "certain comparative advantages for undertaking complex internal and regional mediation efforts."

"In the role of mediator, it has inherent legitimacy and the flexibility to talk to all parties, including elements outside the political process," Khalilzad wrote.

The U.N. has an office and a special representative in Iraq but it cut back severely on its presence there after the Aug. 19, 2003 truck bombing at its headquarters in eastern Baghdad that killed at least 22 people, including the top U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello.

U.S. deputy ambassador Jackie Sanders said the United States would continue its financial support for Iraq's economic reconstruction and development. But she also stressed that Iraqi officials must also work to adopt laws reforming the energy sector.

"Getting the revenue sharing formula right is especially important as a matter of national policy, to reinforce for all Iraqis a sense of national unity and purpose," Sanders said.

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