PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark called Thursday for transition of authority in Iraq during the course of this year and said that the United States should soon begin the process of withdrawing the U.S. soldiers.
Clark, a four-star general who served as the supreme commander of NATO in 1997-2000 and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, said the fledging Iraqi government must take charge and be given the means to address the security in the country.
"It's necessary ... to make this year a year of transition in Iraq," Clark told The Associated Press in an interview during his visit to Kosovo. "The Iraqi government must take charge."
He said that ministers of interior, defense and national security should be appointed, but also said that a lot of help is needed from the international community to strengthen the Iraqi government in meeting the needs of the people.
"And then we should begin the process of withdrawing the U.S. soldiers and other coalition soldiers from Iraq," said Clark.
"I do think that there should be no permanent bases there. I think that the United States should soon begin its process of redeployment," he said, adding that he believed there will be "some withdrawals very soon given where we are."
Clark, who was the commanding general in NATO's war in Kosovo in 1999 which halted Serb forces' crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, said the issues in Iraq were not military issues, but were associated with economic development and the ability to form a strong government.
Clark is on a three-day visit to Kosovo at the invitation of the province's Prime Minister, Agim Ceku. He is considered a hero by the province's ethnic Albanians who want the province to become independent, but reviled by many Serbs for his role during the bombing campaign.
The U.N. is currently conducting talks aimed at steering ethnic Albanians and Serbian officials toward settling the final status of the province, a home to some 2 million.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority wants independence, while Serbs want it to remain part of Serbia.
"I do believe that Kosovo will become an independent state," Clark said, sitting in a the building housing the province's government. The building has been renovated after being heavily damaged during the NATO bombing in 1999.
"I think an independent Kosovo will add to the stability of the region," he said. "It will terminate these long-lasting questions about the status of Kosovo and it will enable people both in Serbia and in Kosovo to focus on really important issues."