WASHINGTON, Oct 3 (Reuters) Iraq's government must do a better job of distributing electricity, fuel and food if recent security improvements are to be sustained, the top US commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq said.
Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said providing essential services was crucial to persuade Iraqis that their government can take care of them and that they did not need sectarian groups and militias for support or protection.
''We now need to start to improve the basic services. If we can do that, I think we will see a tipping point.'' Odierno told a news conference in Washington yesterday.
''We must bring the economic and political processes in now or we could squander this opportunity that we've developed,'' he said.
''Ultimately the government of Iraq must overcome the Sunni-Shia divide. Only the government of Iraq can truly reconcile.'' The US military has said that violence in Iraq has declined this year, partly as a result of the deployment of some 30,000 extra US troops ordered by President George W Bush in January despite the war's unpopularity in America.
Civilian deaths from violence across Iraq fell 50 per cent from the previous month to 884 deaths in September, Iraqi government data showed on Monday.
''To have further reduction, in my opinion, it's now about basic services,'' said Odierno, commander of the US-led Multinational Corps in Iraq.
Electricity, fuel and food were not being well distributed, sometimes due to inefficiency and sometimes for sectarian reasons. Sunni Muslims have repeatedly accused Iraq's Shi'ite-led government of depriving them of resources.
''In some cases there are some sectarian agendas,'' Odierno acknowledged. But he noted that the Iraqi government ''has been fairly quick to react once we figure this out, that it is going on.'' He said violence against civilians was still too high and warned against pulling out U.S. troops too soon. ''Our commitment cannot be open-ended but we must also be careful not to rush and to risk failure.'' Bush has approved a plan to reduce the number of troops in Iraq by between 20,000 and 30,000 by next August. Odierno said the drawdown would take place as Iraqi security forces became more capable.
''It is imperative that we continue to transition security responsibilities to the Iraqis but it's equally important that we do so in a cautious and thoughtful manner,'' he said.
Reuters SBA VP0425