WASHINGTON - The strengthening of Palestinian security forces prior to Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza Strip has had mixed success, and their transformation from autonomous fiefdoms to a centralized body is not complete, the U.S. security coordinator in the Middle East., Lt. Gen. William Ward, said yesterday.

Ward, making his first detailed public remarks since he took over his position, which includes helping the Palestinians reform their security forces this year, said they had made progress, but suggested there was a long way to go.

Asked if the Palestinians have the ability to enforce the rule of law and to combat terrorism, Ward told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "The ability will come after time; it is not there at this current juncture."

Dysfunctional PA

Ward described the Palestinian security apparatus when he arrived in the region about three months ago as "fractured" and "dysfunctional," with loyalty to individual commanders and little responsiveness to central control.

He said the Palestinians had begun to shrink the overall number of security organs from more than a dozen down to six, with an eventual goal of three.

Getting an effective security force under the control of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is critical to preventing a vacuum from developing after Israel begins its planned withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank in August.

Ward said a big part of reorganizing the security services was to end a system of loyalty to "individuals, fiefdoms if you will, and having this entire sector... responsive to a central authority."

"That has not taken hold. We are working each and every day to put those sorts of things into place," he said.

Ward pointed to some positive aspects, saying the six Palestinians security organs now reported to the interior minister, and that they were beginning to make arrests on the street, "albeit not to the degree that I would like to see."

"While the Palestinian security forces are taking actions on the ground, they must continually seek ways to do more," he said, adding that it was vital that they have political support at home and from abroad to go after militants.