BAGHDAD, Iraq – In the most public challenge by an American official to Iraq’s new leaders, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged the leaders Tuesday to move quickly on forming a government and to resist calls for a wide purge in the nation’s fledgling security services.

U.S. officials are concerned about the pace of Iraq’s political process 10 weeks after Iraqis bravely went to the polls. The nation still lacks a transitional government, and parliament has yet to start writing a new constitution.

The Americans worry as well that a new government headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari will fire thousands of officials just as Iraq’s security services are finding their footing.

The Bush administration fears al-Jaafari and his Shiite Muslim-dominated Cabinet will “come in and clean house,” Rumsfeld told reporters on a flight to Baghdad before meeting with al-Jaafari and Iraq’s newly elected Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani.

“We have an opportunity to continue to make progress politically, economically,” Rumsfeld said. “Anything that would delay that or disrupt that as a result of turbulence … would be unfortunate.”

Former army officers with Baath Party ties are most in jeopardy. Some officials associated with interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi also are seen as vulnerable.

“Anything they do in the Interior and the Defense ministries ought to be with an eye to the fact that Iraqis are getting killed, and they better have a good reason for doing what they are doing,” Rumsfeld said of the new leaders.

Shiite officials respond that they have a very good reason: Members of al-Jaafari’s United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant bloc in the new National Assembly, complain of harassment and intimidation by Sunni officers in the army and police. Insurgents have infiltrated the security ministries, they allege, and some senior posts are filled by Baath Party sympathizers.

The greatest sources of conflict have been the intelligence services and the Defense Ministry. Officials from those agencies have swapped allegations of murder and intimidation with leaders of the Badr Movement, a Shiite militia loyal to one of the main groups in the United Iraqi Alliance.

U.S. officials warn that a purge could wipe out much of the progress American forces have made in training and mobilizing Iraqi police and soldiers.

“It’s not so much a matter of continuity as a matter of competence, of capability,” Rumsfeld said during a stop in the northern Kurdish city of Salahuddin. “It’s a matter of not … setting back the important progress that’s been achieved.”

Talabani assured Rumsfeld that a new Cabinet would be formed shortly, but he gave no firm deadline. Al-Jaafari said he would build a Cabinet of “good technocrats” from a variety of backgrounds.

The major questions left are how to bring in the Sunnis, who fared poorly in the elections, and what positions to give members of Allawi’s list.

As for American troops in Iraq, Talabani and al-Jaafari have rejected drafting a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. When U.S. forces leave, the Iraqi leaders say, depends on when Iraqi forces can take full charge.

Rumsfeld told American troops that U.S. forces would stay in Iraq until the Iraqis can take over the security duties for themselves. That would be helped, he said, by a new government with “highly competent people who are not going to politicize security forces.”

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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