- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

BAGHDAD | A senior Iraqi military official says the Iraqi army wants to continue a long-term training relationship with the United States beyond the 2011 deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal.

Gen. Nasier Abadi, vice chairman of Iraq’s army, told The Washington Times that Iraqi commanders would welcome continued training by U.S. forces despite the withdrawal deadline set late last year.

Gen. Abadi said the relationship would depend on next year’s Iraqi elections. “Depending on what the new elected government next year views, how it considers America, how it considers Iran, does it still want good relations with America or not, this will decide on whether they ask us what we need,” he said.

But if the decision belonged to the Iraqi military leadership alone, he said, “the answer is yes, yes and yes.”

U.S. military sales to Iraq and U.S. training are generally not topics of public discourse here. Iraqi officials have celebrated the transition from U.S. to Iraqi control as a victory for the nation’s sovereignty.

When U.S. combat troops exited Iraqi cities in June, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a national holiday. The checkpoints in Baghdad that used to be manned by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are now staffed exclusively by Iraqis.

However, there are signs that even the Shi’ite political parties, which were the least comfortable with an American presence, may accede to any military request for a continued U.S. training relationship. Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, told The Times in an interview that the U.S. Embassy had not formally raised the subject since the signing of the status-of-forces agreement and that such a decision was best left to military specialists.

Gen. Abadi said the U.S. military likely will continue to play a role in Iraq beyond 2011. He praised Iraq’s fledgling air force but said it lacks the equipment needed to protect the country’s airspace.

“You have a country, and the country does not have a roof. Who is protecting the roof? It is the USA,” he said. “It is the U.S. Air Force that is protecting our skies. For Iraq to say goodbye to the U.S., it would have to have something that will do the job when the American forces leave.”

Gen. Abadi said Iraq has only three working C-130 aircraft, which could be used to transport troops quickly. The Iraqi air force also has 24 MI-17 medium transport helicopters.

Iraq’s air-reconnaissance fleet consists of a few Cessna Caravans equipped with U.S. Hellfire missiles and a King Air Beechcraft. The country lacks sufficient radar installations.

“The U.S. was kind enough to donate a radar system that we have up north. We will not say where,” the general said. “They are providing us with another one, which will be down south. But we need another one in the middle of the country and another one in the west.

“The key to the skies is the hope we will get F-16s and get them before 2011.”

Some in the U.S. military have expressed concern that Iraq’s military will not be a durable national institution. The Times first reported a National Defense University study in August that warned that Iraqi divisions and battalions are more loyal to sectarian political parties than to the state.

Gen. Abadi, a Shi’ite, dismissed this concern. He said the army had gone to great lengths to build a national institution, in which soldiers consider themselves Iraqis first.

“The army is a pillar of national unity,” he said.

Gen. Abadi said sectarian loyalties were a problem in 2004, when the first security institutions were recruited locally.

In 2005, he said, the military leadership began integrating the armed forces and moving battalions and divisions from the geographic locations where they were recruited.

“We wanted an army to be a true army,” he said. “What we did, little by little, we started moving battalions from point A to point B.”

He noted that tribal leaders in the western province of Anbar began forming the Sons of Iraq and other local anti-terrorist militias in 2007 and 2008. “We insisted that they come back as Iraqi soldiers and not as Sunnis or Anbaris. We took them in and trained them and sent them all around,” he said.

Sons of Iraq, also known as Awakening Councils, consisted of Sunnis who joined U.S. troops during the surge and fought al Qaeda and affiliated groups. The movement has since been turned over to Iraqi control, and many members complain that promised positions in Iraqi security forces have not materialized.

Gen. Abadi pointed to regulations limiting the tenure of battalion commanders to two years to facilitate rotation as another measure to curb sectarian influences.

While acknowledging that problems still could arise, he said, “I definitely am optimistic.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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