BAGHDAD // Simmering fears about the impact of a US troop withdrawal from Iraq have burst into the open with a warning by Iraq's army chief that its military will not be fit to take over security for another decade. US troops are scheduled to pull out by the end of next year, and it has been taboo for Iraqi politicians or military officials to publicly question the wisdom of that timetable.
The US and Iraqi governments have been keen to portray their efforts against a deadly insurgency as a success, with politicians from both sides heavily invested in sticking to the withdrawal plan. But concerns about the speed of the pull-out have been quietly circulating among some members of the political elite, military experts and the general public here. On Wednesday, the army chief of staff Lt Gen Babaker Zerbari went public, stating clearly at a conference in Baghdad that he believed a dangerous void would be created if US troops left as scheduled.
"At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because they are still here, but the problem will start after 2011," he said. "The politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011 ? if I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020." Iraq's ministry of defence rushed yesterday to qualify his statement, insisting he was referring only to the threat of external invasion and was not saying the security forces were unable to cope with an internal insurgency.
US officials also insisted the pull-out deadline would not be changed and went so far as to claim that only dozens of US soldiers, attached to Washington's diplomatic mission in Baghdad, might remain in the country after next year. But among Iraqis the debate about the controversial US military presence has been dramatically re-ignited, something that has been welcomed in some circles as long overdue.
"The Iraqi army is not ready to handle security here and will not be ready for years," said Mohammad Salman, an official in the Iraqiyya political coalition that won the March general election. "What General Zerbari said is the truth and he asked for us politicians to deal with this reality." Under the current Status of Forces Agreement, which was concluded in 2008 between the government of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and the administration of the former US president George W Bush, all American forces should be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. That pull-out date is, however, subject to possible further negotiations. Mr Salman said those negotiations should now be on the political agenda. "We need to sit with the Americans and draw up a new plan, a new agreement about their withdrawal," he said.
"The security file will not be settled here in the next year and we need to acknowledge that the Iraqi army is not ready." Those sentiments are far from universally held. Anti-American groups, including the powerful Sadr movement, believe Washington is looking for an excuse to keep its forces in the Iraq. There are already signs that they see Gen Zerbari's comments as part of a US plot to ensure that happens.
The Sadrists have said they will boycott parliament if US troops stay longer than currently agreed and there have been persistent suggestions that their disbanded military wing, the Mahdi army, will be revived to fight foreign troops if they remain past the deadline. Mr Maliki, who continues as Iraq's prime minister pending the formation of a new government, has also taken a hard line on the issue, insisting that the security forces built under his leadership are capable of defeating insurgents. Those assertions were refuted by a former senior officer in Iraq's Republican Guard. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said Gen Zerbari's views reflect those held by other military officials; that government forces remained weak, ill trained and ill equipped. "Our army cannot cope with the many difficulties that face the country," he said. "They are unable to cope with limited attacks by al Qa'eda or the Mahdi Army and there are units that would be defeated if they came under sustained attack from a militia. "The Iraqi army are long years away from being strong enough to deal with the internal problems let alone to be able to defend the country's borders." This new debate about the US pull out comes amid a marked recent increase in violence. Already this month 100 people have been killed in a series of insurgent attacks, coinciding with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the next stage of the US drawdown. In little more than two weeks time, the US military is scheduled to stop combat operations and reduce the number of soldiers here to 50,000, down from a peak of about 170,000. email@example.com