Iraq’s most senior military official warned Wednesday that the planned pullout of U.S. forces at the end of next year might be premature, as the White House said it was keeping to its schedule for removing troops from the war-torn country.
Lt. Gen. Babakar Zebari, the Iraqi army chief of staff, said his troops will not be “fully ready” to defend the country until 2020, and that the U.S. troop withdrawal would leave “a void.” His remarks came on a day when eight Iraqi soldiers were killed in two explosions after they were lured by insurgents into a booby-trapped house.
The general’s comments appear at odds with the views of political leaders in both Baghdad and Washington, but echo growing concerns about the still-fragile situation in Iraq, which last week entered its sixth month without a government after inconclusive elections March 7.
James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser, expressed optimism Wednesday about the progress of negotiations to form a new government.
“We think that they’re making good progress,” he told CNN. “And within the not-too-distant future, they’ll come to some accommodation. … I’d say maybe a few weeks, a month.”
Mr. Jones said the national security team — including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq — had conducted a “comprehensive review of where we were with regard to the political situation in Iraq, the formation of a government, the security situation and … the transition that’s going on.”
The end of August will mark the conclusion of U.S. combat operations in Iraq: The 50,000 U.S. troops slated to remain after that will be training Iraqi forces and working with them on counterterrorism.
On Wednesday, White House officials stressed that the last forces would leave on time. “There will be no U.S. troops” in Iraq after 2011, national security staffer Benjamin Rhodes told reporters at a briefing. He said Gen. Odierno told President Obama that “levels of violence continue to be dramatically reduced, as they have been over the course of the last couple of years.”
“Iraqis have increasingly stepped into the lead” in combat operations since the deadline was set in 2008,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Gen. Odierno was “very confident in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle a situation,” added Anthony Blinken, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s national security adviser.
But Gen. Zebari told the Agence France-Presse news-wire service in Baghdad: “If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: The U.S. Army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.”
“At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because they are still here,” he added. “But the problem will start after 2011 … the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011.”
Iraqi army Capt. Mohanned Ibrahim told Agence France-Presse that the gunmen left through the back door, and that two bombs in the house and the garden killed eight of the soldiers and wounded four others.
The incident highlights doubts about the tactical competence of Iraqi forces, who will take charge of military operations in the country at a transition ceremony Aug. 31.