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“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.”

Eight of Gen. Zebari’s troops were killed Wednesday in Saadiyah, central Iraq, after they pursued insurgents who had fired at their checkpoint into a nearby house around dawn.

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.

But retired U.S. Army Col. Paul Hughes, now an Iraq scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Washington Times that Gen. Zebari’s concerns — and those of other senior Iraqi military officers he had talked with — were focused on the capacity of the Iraqi military to defend the country against potential external aggressors after the U.S. military leaves at the end of 2011.

“What he’s concerned about is the Iraqi military being able to defend the country’s borders against an invasion,” he said. “They live in a rough neighborhood.”

Mr. Hughes said the 2011 deadline was written into an agreement the Bush administration reached with the Iraqi government in 2008 governing the status of U.S. forces there.

“The Strategic Framework Agreement contains no provision — [for] ongoing military cooperation beyond 2011,” he said.

After any departure of U.S. troops, there would still be “a lot of different ways the [U.S.] military could support and reinforce the Iraqis if they were called on,” Mr. Hughes said.

This “over-the-horizon capability” would include the use of the two U.S. combat brigades based in Germany and U.S. naval and air power, he added.

Mr. Hughes said this capability depends on the U.S. and Iraqi military being able to work together — and that requires “an ongoing program of training exercises to strengthen cooperation.”

“Personally, I would recommend that the two governments revisit” the 2008 agreement to ensure U.S. forces were able to continue to guarantee Iraq’s security after 2011, he said.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Bush administration’s Iraq Study Group, told The Times that whatever might happen afterward, the 2011 departure date is fixed.

“I’ve never been a fan of deadlines,” the Indiana Democrat said. “They are not good policy … [but] the political pressure to create them is very strong.”

“America is coming out of Iraq,” Mr. Hamilton added. “It is fanciful to think that the deadline will be revisited.”

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