UN chief Annan says US departure should be optimal

GENEVA - US forces are trapped in Iraq, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said yesterday, warning that Washington must find the right time to leave without plunging the country deeper into chaos.

GENEVA - US forces are trapped in Iraq, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said yesterday, warning that Washington must find the right time to leave without plunging the country deeper into chaos.

"On the question of the military presence, it is a difficult issue. The US is in a way trapped in Iraq, trapped in the sense that it cannot stay and it cannot leave," Annan said.

"The timing of its departure will have to be optimal," he said.

The UN chief said Washington should instead "try to get it to a level that when it withdraws, the Iraqis themselves will be able to maintain a situation that would ensure a reasonably secure environment".

The debate in the US over options in Iraq has intensified, with the military reportedly ready to temporarily increase US forces while expanding training for Iraqi forces.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that three basic options have emerged in a strategy review in the Pentagon, led by a hybrid that would beef up US forces for a short period to dampen sectarian violence.

A sizeable boost in US troops would run counter to the strong current of public anger over Iraq, which swept the Democrats to power in congressional elections earlier this month.

Annan said a key immediate step for Iraq was to revise its constitution to ensure power and revenue sharing between feuding communities, especially to allay the fears of Sunni Muslims.

Iraqi lawmakers voted unanimously to set up a committee to amend the constitution in September.

Iraq is riven by fighting between rival Sunni and Shiite Arab factions. The Kurdish minority's dream of independence has also been put on hold while parliament debates plans for a federation of autonomous provinces.

The draft law Iraqi lawmakers began debating in September would split Iraq largely on ethnic and sectarian lines.

If passed, it could not come into effect for at least 18 months, while Sunni members have insisted on reviewing the year-old constitution. - Sapa-AP

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