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General cautions over rush to transfer Iraq security

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S.-led forces in Iraq will not rush the process of transferring security control to Iraqi forces, a top general said, despite U.S. troop withdrawal becoming a key issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.

“Our ambition is to hand over as soon as is sensible, but on the other hand it is in nobody’s interest to rush the process and to hand something over before people are ready,” Lieutenant -General Bill Rollo told Reuters in an interview at the weekend.

Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say they will begin withdrawing U.S. troops quickly if either wins the November election, while Republican presidential candidate John McCain wants troops to stay until Iraq is more stable.

Rollo, deputy commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq and the top British general in Iraq, repeated Washington’s mantra that any decision on transferring security control must be “conditions-based”.

“The factors are the level of the threat, the degree and capability of the security forces and ... is the politics right.”

He said Iraq’s army, rebuilt from scratch after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, had expanded at enormous speed and “made quite astonishing progress ... but there is still a lot to do with it, in terms of increasing standards of training, logistics”.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government had hoped to assume security control of all 18 provinces by the end of 2007 but nine are still waiting to be transferred.

In its report to Congress on the Iraq war last September, the Pentagon said it was projecting that the process could be completed as early as this July. This now seems highly unlikely.

In its latest quarterly report to Congress, the Pentagon dropped any reference to a timeframe for handover.

The nine provinces awaiting transfer include Baghdad, the former Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold of western Anbar and four northern provinces where U.S. and Iraqi forces are fighting al Qaeda.

“AL QAEDA UNDER PRESSURE”

Rollo said there were a number of provinces “in the running” for Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC), but he would not say which. U.S. commanders had expected to transfer Anbar province this month or in April, but now they say only that it will be “soon”.

“Predictions in this place are always difficult, but our aim is to move to PIC as soon as we sensibly can,” he said.

One reason for any delay may be the upsurge in violence in Iraq since January, including a rise in suicide bombings which the U.S. military has blamed on al Qaeda militants.

“I think it is a fair judgment that al Qaeda are under pressure at the moment. When they come under pressure they react,” Rollo said, speaking in his office in the U.S. embassy in the U.S.-protected Green Zone in central Baghdad.

“It’s too early to call it a trend. If you look at the statistics and the graphs there is a fairly steady baseline and within that baseline there are small spikes from time to time.”

Reacting to comments by McCain this week that he feared al Qaeda could try to influence the presidential campaign with spectacular attacks in Iraq, Rollo said:

“Anything is possible. Six months is a long way ahead.”

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