EXCLUSIVE: Gear for Iraq may extend U.S. stay

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EXCLUSIVE:

As President Obama weighs options for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the country’s military is purchasing American helicopters, cargo planes and tanks equipment that typically requires a prolonged U.S. presence for maintenance and training.

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, who is in charge of training Iraq’s security services and military, told The Washington Times that some of the ordered equipment would not be delivered until 2012, even though a new status of forces agreement (SOFA) requires all U.S. troops to exit the country by 2011.

Gen. Helmick said the Iraqi military had already ordered 140 M1 Abrams tanks, up to 24 Bell Assault Reconnaissance helicopters and 6 C130-J transport airplanes. The tanks will not be delivered until 2011, and the helicopters and transport planes will not arrive until the end of 2012 or possibly in 2013.

“The government of Iraq does not have to purchase that kind of equipment from the United States; they have elected to do so,” Gen. Helmick said. “To me that could indicate that the Iraqis would like to have a long-term strategic relationship with the United States.”

The deals also will begin to redress the economic costs borne by United States to wage the Iraq war. Among the U.S. companies that will benefit from contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are General Dynamics, which makes the M1 Abrams tank, Bell Boeing, which produces the assault helicopters, and Lockheed Martin, which makes the C130-J Super Hercules tactical airlifter. Lockheed Martin also makes the F-16 fighter jet, which also is generating some Iraqi interest, Gen. Helmick said.

Such complex defense systems require sophisticated maintenance and training that would keep U.S. forces in the country long beyond the deadline set in the SOFA.

“No matter how fast combat brigades are drawn down from Iraq, the president has always talked of the need for a residual force of some size to remain behind to, among other things, continue to train and equip the Iraqi security forces,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. That would require an adjustment in the SOFA, which “as it stands now … would preclude [U.S. troops] from doing so after 2011 when all U.S. troops, combat or otherwise, have to leave the country.”

Defense procurement is likely to be discussed when Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Qader al-Obeidi, comes to Washington next week and meets with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Mr. al-Obeidi will visit defense contractors and weapons makers, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Last month, he traveled to Seoul and told reporters that he considered the half-century-old U.S.-South Korea military relationship to be a model for Iraq-U.S. ties.

“The South Korean military is a model to follow because it has achieved modernization from a zero point,” the South Korean Yonhap news agency quoted the defense minister as saying.

About 24,000 American troops are in South Korea, where U.S. forces have been stationed since the Korean War.

To build a sustained U.S.-Iraq military relationship, Iraq and the United States would need to modify the SOFA. U.S. and some Iraqi officials say that these arrangements usually are renegotiated over time and that some of the sections of the agreement leave open the option of a longer-term training relationship.

Gen. Helmick pointed out that Article 4 of the current pact allows for training.

“It says we shall continue in our efforts to strengthen Iraq’s security capabilities, and that the training is mutually agreed upon. Equipping, supporting and supplying Iraq are all mutual agreed upon tasks,” he said

Another factor is that both Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who are minorities in Iraq, may push for a continued U.S. presence as insurance against a resumption of the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country between 2005 and 2007.

“Some of the long-term deployments will reflect the long-term uncertainties in Iraq,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy analyst at the center-right American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “The Kurds will feel more secure and behave better if there is a long-term deployment of American troops in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

He added, “It is also the case that the Sunni community will have a similar calculus.”

The Democrat-led Congress, which has pressed for a full withdrawal from Iraq, could present a roadblock to Iraq’s military procurements.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the center-left Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said Congress likely would not object to selling Iraq American equipment with one caveat: “I think Congress would say, ‘yes,’ assuming the Iraqis are not in the midst of a full-fledged civil war.”

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