By DAVID STRINGER
The Associated Press
Monday, October 23, 2006; 1:46 PM
LONDON -- Coalition troops must stay in Iraq and resist the temptation to "cut and run" in the face of hostile public opinion, an Iraqi government official said after meeting British leaders Monday.
Iraqi forces will increasingly take over responsibility for the country's stability from coalition troops, said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, an influential Kurd with long ties to the U.S. and Britain.
He urged officials to ignore an increasingly pessimistic tone of the debate over Iraq's future.
"I do believe there is no option for the international community to cut and run," Saleh said after talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair. "We need to understand that there is a need of utmost urgency to deal with many of the problems of Iraq, but we must not give in to panic."
Saleh said he was concerned about what he described as the increasing acrimony in international debate over Iraq.
"There is too much of a pessimistic tone to this debate _ even I would say in certain circles a defeatist tone," he told the British Broadcasting Corp., before meeting with Blair.
He said Iraqi forces will be in control of seven or eight of Iraq's 18 provinces by the end of the year, but that the presence of coalition troops remains crucial as local police and military try to quell seemingly unabated bloodshed and take charge.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who also held talks with Saleh, acknowledged that Iraq could eventually break down into multiple parts. The Iraqi people must decide whether the country should remain as a single state or divide along ethnic lines, she said.
"That is very much a matter for the Iraqis. They have had enough of people from outside handing down arbitrary boundaries and arbitrary decisions," Beckett told BBC radio.
Saleh's 30-minute meeting at Blair's office came after defense officials and a senior British minister claimed that Iraqi forces could be given complete authority over southern Iraq within 12 months.
Blair's office denied he had pressed Saleh to draw up an exit timetable for British troops, but acknowledged the talks were focused on ensuring the process of handing over control of provinces continues "as quickly as possible."
"We haven't set a deadline, we won't set a deadline, we won't set an arbitrary date," said Blair's official spokesman, who speaks only on condition of anonymity.
The spokesman said the talks had touched on topics including the Iraqi economy.
"The prime minister reiterated again that we fully support the Iraqi government in trying to get to a situation where it can take control of its destiny," he said.
British defense officials have repeatedly insisted they hope to hand over all security responsibilities in southern Iraq in 2007, cutting the number of troops based in the country from about 7,000 to between 3,000 and 4,000.
British forces relinquished control of the southern Muthanna province in July and neighboring Dhi Qar province in September, leaving international troops in control of Basra and Maysan provinces.
Saleh declined to confirm Monday whether Iraqi forces would assume control of both Basra and Maysan in 2007. British defense officials expected to hand over Maysan either next month or early next year.
"We understand this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community. At the end of the day it is up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government to establish security," Saleh told reporters.
He said his government could not set any timetable for assuming full control, but was "aware of the gravity and the seriousness of the situation and that the government of Iraq needs to assume more responsibility."
Saleh also stressed that stability is dependent on neighboring Syria and Iran working with the Iraqi government and respecting its sovereignty.
Beckett called on the Iraqi people to show more support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, claiming "it is the best game in town, if not the only game in town."