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Jones lauds progress on Iraq, ducks questions on gays in the military

Despite the lack of visible progress in forming an Iraqi government, National Security Adviser James L. Jones said Wednesday that "things are going well," and the administration expected a resolution "in the next few weeks, a month."

President Obama met Wednesday morning with his senior national security advisers to discuss the political and security situations in Iraq, as well as the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops, Jones said on CNN's The Situation Room. Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, reported that "Iraqi security forces are up to the task of handling things themselves, which is very, very good news" Jones said, and there will be no delay in bringing the level of U.S. forces down to 50,000 by the end of August.

The administration has been playing the role of nervous counselor to Iraqi politicians who have been arguing since the March 7 parliamentary elections over the right to form the next government. Vice President Biden, assigned to head the Iraq account by Obama, has been spending "an enormous amout of time" talking to political leaders on the telephone, including on Wednesday morning, Jones said.

But the administration has concluded that any overt pressure on the Iraqi politicians would be counterproductive. In the meantime, Jones said, "there is a government that's functioning" under caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "Violence is down--the month of July would have qualified as the third least violent month in Iraq since January of 2004,"

Beyond his assurances on Iraq, Jones ducked questions from CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Iran, the Mideast peace process, and the possibility of openly serving gay Marines.

"I'm not going to speculate on that," he said when asked whether the administration was prepared to take military action if Iran does not respond to stepped-up sanctions regarding its alleged nuclear weapons program. Although Obama has said repeatedly that the door is open for direct U.S. talks with Iran's leaders if it complies with international demands, Jones said that the right place for Tehran to declare its intentions is at talks in Vienna, with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"As far as a heads of state meeting," Jones said, "only time will tell. But they have to make those initial steps, I think, to show that they are sincere. There's no point in a theatrical meeting without any building blocks leading up to it."

Administration envoy George Mitchell failed this week to secure Palestinian and Israeli agreement to direct talks U.S. officials had been pushing for by Sept. 1, but Jones said without elaboration that he thought such a dialogue was "a possibility in the near future."

Unsurprisingly, Jones, a former Marine Corps general, said he thought Obama "did exactly the right thing" in asking the Pentagon to conduct a lengthy study of service attitudes before seeking to change the law barring gays from open military service.

"The standard for service in the armed forces of the United States ought to be based on good order and discipline," Jones said. "And we found ways to modify eligibility to serve in the armed forces for other groups, you know, whether it was based on race or religion or whatever."

Asked whether he was "personally comfortable with gay Marines serving openly," Jones said he thought "the standard should be that, that people in uniform should adhere to the code of conduct and contribute to the good order and discipline of armed forces by their, by their daily behavior. And that should apply to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation."

"So you're comfortable with this change?" Blitzer pressed.

"I think that--that we're--we're getting to that--that part in our--in our society that it is--it's something that we should be able to find the way--or the way to accommodate," Jones replied, according to a CNN transcript.

"Because other NATO allies, a lot of other militaries do it," Blitzer observed.

"Exactly."

"So you think the U.S. should do it, too?"

"Exactly," Jones said.

But then Jones appeared to roll back any unequivocal agreement. "I'm looking to see the results of the study and join the debate and give it some thoughtful and open-minded consideration," he said.

By Karen DeYoung  | August 11, 2010; 6:34 PM ET
 
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