Thursday, February 26, 2009

Iraq says early US pullout ok if Iraq army equipped

BAGHDAD - The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 19 months, faster than agreed in a bilateral security pact, will not pose a problem so long as Iraq can equip its forces in that time, an official said Wednesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama is leaning toward a 19-month timetable to pull out of Iraq as violence unleashed by the invasion launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2003 fades, U.S. officials say.

That is a compromise between a campaign pledge to leave Iraq within 16 months and the wishes of some U.S. commanders who fear withdrawing too early could put Iraq’s security gains at risk.

It is also faster than the end-2011 deadline foreseen in a U.S.-Iraqi security pact hammered out between the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Bush administration.

“We had hoped that the withdrawal would be according to the schedule mentioned in the agreement,” said Brigadier-General Mohammed al-Askari, spokesman for the Iraqi Defence Ministry.

“But even so, if the U.S. president decides to withdraw them in 19 months, with the agreement of the Iraqi government, we will speed up our readiness to be prepared by that time.”

The most important thing, Askari said, was that the withdrawal date should be agreed between the two governments and that Iraq has the time it needs to properly equip its 600,000-strong, largely U.S.-trained security forces.

“Our readiness depends on equipping the Iraqi army. We are pushing hard now and using our relations with different countries to cut the time required to equip the Iraqi army and we are achieving good results,” he added.

An announcement on a U.S. withdrawal is expected by the end of the week, marking a milestone in an unpopular conflict that overshadowed Bush’s presidency and killed tens of thousands.

Iraq needs helicopters
The sectarian slaughter between Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and once dominant Sunni Muslims has begun to subside.

Nevertheless, suicide and car bomb attacks remain common and tensions are rising between the Shi’ite-led government and minority Kurds in the north. Some U.S. military officers fear the growing security in Iraq could easily be reversed.

Under the security pact, U.S. combat troops must pull out of Iraqi cities by the middle of this year and all U.S. troops must leave the country by the end of 2011.

Even under Obama’s revised schedule, Pentagon officials said some U.S. troops, including about 40,000 devoted to training and mentoring Iraqi forces, would remain through end-2011.

“We will wait and see,” said Ahmed al-Masoudi, spokesman for supporters in the Iraqi parliament of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the 140,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq to leave immediately.

“We’ll see what the reality is on the ground. We don’t believe speeches and rhetoric.”

Askari said the most important piece of equipment needed by the Iraqi armed forces were helicopters. He said good progress had been made in ordering them but he gave no details.

Defence Minister Abdul Qaeder Jassim went to Washington recently where, among other things, he discussed the possible purchase of M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets.

U.S. military officials say around $5 billion in Iraqi orders for weapons, uniforms, logistics and other materiel have already been delivered or are in the pipeline.

Askari said Iraq’s first post-Saddam warship would be delivered by September, to help protect its crucial oil exports, and a second vessel would be delivered in early 2010.

Khaleej Times


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