The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said Sunday it would take a “complete failure” of Iraqi forces for U.S. troops to return to combat operations there.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno predicted Iraqi security forces will be ready for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of next year, but said he could foresee a scenario where there remains a U.S. military presence in Iraq for years to come.
“If the government of Iraq requests some technical assistance in fielding systems that allow them to continue to protect themselves, some external threats, we could be here,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley on “State of the Union.”
He suggested that the U.S. presence in Iraq could lead to agreements like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia where the U.S. lends technical support to help “them to develop their infrastructure and security architecture.”
“And if that’s what we’re talking about, potentially, we could be there beyond 2011,” he said.
This week’s departure of combat troops and continued violence, including a suicide bombing at an army recruitment center in central Baghdad, that killed 61 people this month, has generated concern over the still-fragile state of the Iraqi army and parliament, which has been in a stalemate over the organization of government since the inconclusive March 7 national elections.
Sen. Lindsey Graham cited such concerns when expressing a new willingness to keep American forces in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“We’re all safer if they can continue to make progress, so I hope we will have an enduring relationship of having some military presence in Iraq,” the South Carolina Republican said. “I think it would be smart not to let things unwind over the next three or five years.”
Gen. Odierno acknowledged that while the Iraqi army is not perfect, its forces “continue to grow.”
“We continue to see development in planning, in their ability to conduct operations,” he said.
Gen. Odierno’s comments on Sunday come as the U.S. military pushes to meet President Obama’s pledge to hand over military responsibility to the Iraqi government by the end of the summer and to completely withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
The White House and military leaders reached a milestone last week after the last American combat troop exited Iraq more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion and two weeks ahead of President Obama’s August 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations there.
The president is expected to give a major speech on Iraq after he returns to Washington on Aug. 29 from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation.
Under the president’s plan, some 50,000 U.S. troops will stay in the country in a noncombat role for the remainder of the year and will train Iraqi forces and work with them on counterterrorism. That’s down from a peak of 170,000 troops in 2007.
Last week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spoke similarly about President Obama’s withdrawal plans for that country, saying timetables are conditions-based and that he would not hesitate to recommend keeping troops past the deadline if the situation on the ground required it.
And earlier this month, Iraq’s most senior military officials warned that the country’s army would not be able to cope with a complete U.S. troop withdrawal.
“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,” said Lt. Gen. Babakar Zebari, the Iraqi army chief of staff.