BAGHDAD (Reuters) -The U.S. military in Iraq said on Sunday media reports that America and Britain planned to pull all troops out of Iraq by spring 2007 were “completely false,” reiterating that there was no timetable for withdrawal.
Two British newspapers reported on Sunday that the pull-out plan followed an acceptance by the two governments that the presence of foreign troops in Iraq was now an obstacle to securing peace.
But a spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq reiterated previous statements by U.S. and Iraqi officials that foreign troops would be gradually withdrawn from the country once Iraqi security forces were capable of guaranteeing security.
“This news report on a withdrawal of forces within a set timeframe is completely false,” Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said of the stories in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Mirror, which quoted unnamed senior defense ministry sources.
“As we’ve said over and over again, any withdrawal will be linked to the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain domestic order on behalf of a representative Iraqi government that respects the rights of all its citizens. This is an ongoing assessment and not linked to any timeframe,” he said.
Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal Talabani said he would issue a decree on Sunday to summon a first sitting of the parliament elected in December.
Talabani on Saturday added his voice to pressure from other leaders for Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside, saying his resignation would help persuade other parties to form a national unity government that could halt a slide toward civil war.
As at least 14 people were killed in sectarian violence on Saturday, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East called for a broad coalition Washington hopes can foster stability and allow it to start withdrawing its troops.
The Shi’ite United Alliance, the biggest bloc in the new parliament, nominated Jaafari to keep his job despite security and economic difficulties and criticism of his handling of violence that has killed more than 500 people since the destruction of a major Shi’ite shrine in Samarra on February 22.
But smaller factions are refusing to join a coalition he leads and rival Shi’ite leaders are considering putting up a new nominee, political sources say. Parliament is likely to sit around next Sunday, government sources say, but forming a government may take much longer.
The premier must be confirmed by a two-thirds majority.
General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, met both Talabani and Jaafari in Baghdad: “The government of national unity must be formed to bring the country together,” he said.
There are about 135,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines and about 8,500 British troops in Iraq. The full U.S.-led coalition numbers around 160,000. Italy, with the fourth largest contingent in Iraq, has said it plans to pull out this year.
U.S. and British troops have trained 230,000 Iraqis to take on roles in the police force and Iraqi army, but both are currently incapable of securing the country on their own.
Talabani and Shi’ite Interior Minister Bayan Jabor have called for sectarian and ethnic militias to join the U.S.-trained security forces, something U.S. officials in Baghdad have long been urging.
Government leaders, including Talabani and Jabor, are in parties which have justified maintaining their own militia forces, however, and Jabor set no timetable for any change.
“There is no reasonable justification for any fear of the militias at the present time,” Jabor said.
Sunni leaders have accused the government of condoning death squads targeting minority Sunnis and operating from inside the Shi’ite-controlled Interior Ministry. In the north, Sunni Arabs complain of the power of Kurdish peshmerga militias.
Militia leaders deny condoning any such violence.