US dismisses fears ahead of Iraq withdrawal


THE US stated yesterday that its withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011 is “on target”, dismissing a warning from Iraq’s senior military commander that the country’s forces may not be ready to take charge until 2020.

Washington intends to draw down its current deployment of 64,000 troops to 50,000 by the end of this month and to withdraw all but a token force by the deadline set in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa).

“At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because [US forces] are still here,” stated Lieut Gen Babaker Zebari. “But the problem will start after 2011 . . . If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to the politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.” He does not envisage a large force but troops in “just three or four bases”. Iraq’s politicians insist the US must stick to the Sofa.

US commanders in Iraq agree with Lieut Gen Zebari. They argue Iraq’s armed forces – estimated to number 197,000-238,000 troops – are designed to counter domestic insurgents. Ahead of the 2003 war, Iraq’s armed forces consisted of 375,000-500,000 men. The relatively small size of the current force and its lack of equipment means it cannot protect the country from external attacks.

Iraq has just begun to receive some of the equipment it needs to defend the country. Eleven of 140 US battle tanks have arrived but crews will not be trained and the rest of the tanks will not be in service until mid-2012.

Iraq has no independent air cover, an essential component of any defence strategy. Last March the government contracted to purchase 18 US F-16 fighter jets, but these are not set for delivery before 2013.

US commanders also doubt the Iraqi army could successfully deal with a territorial conflict that threatens to erupt between Arab and Kurdish forces in the north. Some senior US officers have suggested the UN should deploy peacekeepers along the tense line between the Kurdish autonomous region and neighbouring provinces where the Kurds have deployed peshmerga militia.

Concerned over violence and destabilisation, many Iraqis are urging the US not to make a precipitate withdrawal. Among them is Tariq Aziz, the ousted regime’s spokesman, who called on Washington not to leave the country “to the wolves”.