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Iraqi sees ‘void’ if U.S. troops withdraw in ‘11

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

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."

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."

"How we get out makes a lot of difference," he said. "We have strong national interests … and moral obligations … to try to leave the country in such a way that we give Iraq a chance for a better future."

Mr. Hamilton, now the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, said he was "deeply disappointed at the failure of political leadership" in Iraq.

He noted that Iraq's parliament had barely met at all since the election, that "key ministries cannot spend their budgets" and that the electricity grid is still not functioning properly, despite $5 billion the United States had plowed into it.

"The situation is worse than most Americans realize," he concluded. "There is a very long way to go in Iraq."

Administration officials stress that even when the last of the troops leave Iraq, U.S. endeavors there will continue. Mr. Obama said last week the pullout is a transition "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."

But Mr. Hamilton said successive U.S. administrations "have always had difficulties … in handing off from military to civilian leadership" as was the plan in Iraq, "in major part because of resources … but also because of capabilities."

The military was much better resourced, and "we don't have the capabilities on the civilian side for this kind of nation-building," the former congressman said.

He cautioned that public expectations about the future of Iraq could be a problem. "There is a sense in the country that we have succeeded in Iraq, and I don't think we have. … The game is still in doubt."

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."

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."

"How we get out makes a lot of difference," he said. "We have strong national interests … and moral obligations … to try to leave the country in such a way that we give Iraq a chance for a better future."

Mr. Hamilton, now the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, said he was "deeply disappointed at the failure of political leadership" in Iraq.

He noted that Iraq's parliament had barely met at all since the election, that "key ministries cannot spend their budgets" and that the electricity grid is still not functioning properly, despite $5 billion the United States had plowed into it.

"The situation is worse than most Americans realize," he concluded. "There is a very long way to go in Iraq."

Administration officials stress that even when the last of the troops leave Iraq, U.S. endeavors there will continue. Mr. Obama said last week the pullout is a transition "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."

But Mr. Hamilton said successive U.S. administrations "have always had difficulties … in handing off from military to civilian leadership" as was the plan in Iraq, "in major part because of resources … but also because of capabilities."

The military was much better resourced, and "we don't have the capabilities on the civilian side for this kind of nation-building," the former congressman said.

He cautioned that public expectations about the future of Iraq could be a problem. "There is a sense in the country that we have succeeded in Iraq, and I don't think we have. … The game is still in doubt."

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