| NAJAF, Iraq
NAJAF, Iraq The U.S. ambassador to Iraq praised Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday for cracking down on Shi'ite militias and Sunni Arab militants and said al Qaeda in Iraq had never been closer to defeat.
"You are not going to hear me say that al Qaeda is defeated, but they've never been closer to defeat than they are now," Ryan Crocker told reporters during a visit to the Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala in southern Iraq.
Maliki, a Shi'ite, has led a crackdown on Sunni Arab militants in the northern city of Mosul, where the government says al Qaeda fighters took refuge after being driven from other areas.
Maliki has also confronted Shi'ite militias in Baghdad's Sadr City slum and in the southern city of Basra.
Crocker said it was important that Iraqi forces were leading operations in Basra and Mosul -- where U.S.-led coalition forces played a supporting role -- and acting alone in Sadr City.
"That's a level of capability that simply wasn't possible even six months ago," he said.
"The government, the prime minister are showing a clear determination to take on extremist armed elements that challenge the authority of the government and they've made it clear that they will do that no matter who these elements are," he said.
Iraqi security forces initially met strong resistance in Basra and Sadr City from the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but are now patrolling both areas.
Crocker opened two new bases for U.S.-led reconstruction teams near Najaf and near Kerbala that will work with local officials on developing infrastructure and the economy.
ELECTION DELAY LIKELY
Crocker said he believed provincial elections, expected in October, may take place later because a lot of preparations remained to be done. "It's more important to get this right than get it quick," he said.
He said a proposed October 1 election date was "aspirational" and a draft election law now being debated in parliament called on the government to set the election date 60 days in advance.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said this week the vote would probably be delayed until November.
The head of Iraq's elections commission told Reuters on Friday no decision has been taken to delay it but said legislators must pass the elections law by July 1 if the vote was to take place on October 1.
A major stumbling bloc to passing the law is a dispute over whether to use an open list electoral system -- where voters can choose specific candidates -- or a closed list one, where they can only select political parties.
Crocker said he expected an "open list" vote. He said there was a lot of work to be done educating voters, registering them, preparing voter materials and making security arrangements.
"So my guess is it's going to be probably later than October. But I think that's OK as long as people see that preparations are under way and that there will be elections. Whether they are in October or November is less important."
The proposed election law would bar political parties with links to militias from standing for election, and Crocker said Sadr's group faced a crucial decision over whether to maintain links to the Mehdi Army.
"Are they going to identify themselves with a militia that is increasingly unpopular generally in the country and which the state has made clear it is not going to tolerate any longer, or are they going to decide on a political approach to their future such as participation in the upcoming provincial elections?" he said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)