The handover of military control in Iraq to local forces is happening as quickly as U.S. military officials believe it needs to happen, a Pentagon (search) spokesman said two days after the Iraqi president criticized U.S. troops for ceding authority too slowly.
In an exclusive interview with FOX News on Saturday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (search) said the American military commanders with whom he has spoken agree to give Iraqi forces a larger role in defending their country but do not follow up with action.
"We ask them for things to change, they agree, and then nothing happens," Talabani said. He spoke to FOX News at his Baghdad residence.
Talabani said Iraqi leaders have repeatedly asked coalition forces to concentrate their efforts on protecting key infrastructure, such as oil pipelines and water pumping stations. Iraq produces fewer than 1 million barrels of oil per day, a fraction of its potential.
On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters that Talabani's criticism had been expressed last month to U.S. officials, and Gen. George Casey (search), the top U.S. commander in Iraq, plans a cautious handover.
"It's nice to know that there are some Iraqi leaders that would like to see that transition happen faster but ... there's no question that it's happening, and at a rate that suggests over time the Iraqi security forces will be principally responsible for securing that country. Casey's priority is that it be done right," Di Rita said.
During the weekend interview Talabani, an Iraqi Kurd (search), also praised the passage of the country’s constitution, approved by voters in a referendum earlier this month.
"The most important thing is that the Iraqi people are thirsty for freedom," he said. "For the first time Iraqis now enjoy the full benefits of democracy. Even the parties supporting Saddam Hussein (search) are organizing openly."
Asked if he has high hopes for the Dec. 15 election, when Iraqis are scheduled to vote for a parliament and government, Talabani replied: "I cannot say 'high.' I have hopes."
Most of the Sunni Arabs who went to the polls Oct. 15 voted against the charter. Talabani, however, pointed out the relatively low turn-out rates in some Sunni areas of the country, saying he believes a majority of Sunni Arabs support the charter but were intimidated by the terrorist threat into staying away from polling places.
He also predicted that December’s vote will see a swing away from the Shiite Muslim religious parties that dominated last January's elections for a transitional national assembly. The Shiite alliance that dominates the current government, he said, has left many Iraqis frustrated with its emphasis on religion and its inability to repair the country's battered infrastructure.
Religious Shiite parties, he said, took 48 percent of the vote in January but are likely to fall to 33 percent or 34 percent in December, with Sunni Arabs and more secular-minded Shiites emerging as the main beneficiaries.
He called Iraq a fractious country, a "national bouquet" that no single ethnic or religious group can hope to dominate.
He dismissed comments by Sunni politicians who accuse the Kurds of wanting to break up Iraq. Some Sunni leaders charge the new constitution, with its guarantees of significant autonomy for Iraq's governorates and regions, is a step toward the partition of the country.
"They know it's not true," he said. "They know it's propaganda."
Unlike the Shiites and Kurds in the Iraqi assembly, he noted, the current Sunni leadership has never been tested at the polls. Many of them, he said, are "extremists" who are not representative of the Sunni community as a whole, which, he predicted, would become clear once the December votes are counted.
In contrast to the country’s Shiite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who hesitated to condemn inflammatory comments about Israel by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called the remarks "unreasonable and impossible," adding: "He's not speaking as a responsible president of a republic."
"Arabs and Muslims must understand one thing which is important: The foundation of Israel was according to the consensus of the international community. It was an international decision. You cannot dismiss it or ignore it."
FOX News' Bret Baier and Nick Simeone contributed to this report.