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US has no quick exit strategy for Iraq
( 2003-11-14 15:44) (AP)

U.S. occupiers may begin transferring power back to the Iraqi people at any time, but the speeded-up change in authority doesn't mean American troops will leave the country any sooner, Bush administration officials say.

U.S. President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said Thursday it was necessary to give Iraqis control more quickly because "they are clamoring for it; they are, we believe, ready for it."

U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice  [AFP]
With the U.S. death toll in Iraq approaching 400 and some polls showing increasing criticism of Bush's handling of post-war Iraq, the administration's aim is to accelerate steps toward an Iraqi takeover and an end to the U.S. occupation.

"It does not mean we would physically leave the country any sooner," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told troops Thursday in Guam. "What it means is the Iraqis would begin to take on a greater portion of responsibility for governing themselves sooner."

To speed the handover, the chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, flew back to Baghdad to present the Iraqi Governing Council with a briefcase full of proposals approved by Bush and his senior advisers.

Among the options Bremer was charged with taking up with the council were holding elections in the first half of next year and the formation of a new government before a constitution is written, senior administration officials said Thursday.

"Our strategy is to give Iraq back to the Iraqi people," Douglas J. Feith, the defense undersecretary for policy, said. "Iraq is on a rapid course to self-rule."

In Iraq, electric power was back up to pre-war levels, college applications were rising, and, in just two months, Iraqi security forces had been built up to 100,000 from 60,000, Feith said in a speech Thursday night to the Council on Foreign Relations, a private research group.

But Feith said while the Iraqi Governing Council had accomplished much, "it has to accomplish a lot more."

The White House decision to put self-rule on a fast track accommodates Iraqi demands for authority and also gives Bush the prospect of drawing down U.S. troop levels before next year's elections.

It coincides with a lack of response from other countries to U.S. appeals that they contribute peacekeeping troops to join the Americans and the 31 other countries playing a military role in Iraq.

Japan, for instance, put off a decision Thursday on sending troops to Iraq, a day after the deadliest attack on coalition forces since major combat ended, and South Korea capped its contribution at 3,000 soldiers new setbacks to U.S. hopes for easing the pressure on its forces.

For months, the administration has insisted that Iraqi leaders write a constitution and hold elections before power was shifted to them by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

But Rice said Iraqi council members didn't want to wait for a new constitution before taking on new responsibilities.

"And so it's the timeline on the permanent constitution that's really extended," she said. Rice said the transfer of more authority to Iraqis "can happen at any time and hopefully will happen well short of a year."

The council faces a Dec. 15 deadline under a U.N. resolution to produce a timetable for writing a constitution and holding elections. Rice said that nothing in the U.N. resolution would constrain a rapid transfer of authority.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in Washington for talks with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, said there was a difficult security situation in some parts of Iraq that should not be underestimated.

But, Straw said, overall the situation was getting better for the vast majority of the Iraqi people.

"You have much higher levels of economic activity, money in people's pockets, water, electricity, sewer services properly operating, a free media that you never had before under Saddam (Hussein) and schools, universities and hospitals operating," Straw said.

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