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Top Iraq general: U.S. army 'must stay' until 2020

Image: A U.S. army sergeant gives a briefing to U.S. troops, Iraqi policemen, soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga fighters
A U.S. army sergeant gives a briefing to U.S. troops, Iraqi policemen, soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga fighters prior to conducting a combined security force patrols in Rizgari, a village southeast of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, on February 25.Arthur Macmillan / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

The commander of Iraq's military is calling for U.S. forces to stay in the country for another decade, reinforcing his stance that his country's military won't be able to secure the nation on their own after U.S. troops leave.

"At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because they are still here, but the problem will start after 2011," Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari said at a defense conference in Baghdad, according to the BBC.

"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 U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020," the BBC reported.

Under the security pact between Baghdad and Washington, all U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by the end of next year.

Violence in Iraq has fallen since the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-2007, but the number of violent civilian deaths, from daily bombings, shootings and other attacks, rose sharply in July.

Zebari also raised his concerns earlier in the summer, telling the AP in June that Iraq needs the U.S. military in place until Iraqi forces prove capable of defending the nation, a benchmark which he also said at the time forces could take a decade to reach.

He pointed out that the U.S. military maintains a presence in other Middle Eastern countries.

"Look at the Turks, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain," he told the AP. "All of these countries have American bases under bilateral agreements. And I don't think we should be afraid of that idea."

Improved security forces
Iraq's security forces have made great strides since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, after which officials disbanded the dictator's army and the once-feared police were jeered as toothless.

U.S. commanders say violence is down by more than half since a year ago, when American troops pulled out of Iraqi cities, and has dropped 90 percent since October 2007 — the peak of the U.S. military surge in Iraq.

But bombings still happen almost daily across Iraq, often targeting the security forces. Drive-by shootings and kidnappings are common. And despite at least $22 billion the U.S. has spent on training and equipping the forces since 2004, many of the problems that have long plagued the army and police remain unresolved.

The U.S. military, preparing to pull out completely by the end of 2011, has been promoting an image of a capable Iraqi security force. Barely a day passes without an announcement of the arrest or killing by homegrown security forces of insurgents, mostly suspects from al-Qaida in Iraq, as well as ordinary criminals.

"Clearly there's still some violence, and we still need to make more progress in Iraq," U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon last month. "But Iraqi security forces have taken responsibility for security throughout Iraq, and they continue to grow and improve every day."

'A positive development'
The White House said Wednesday that the U.S. is on track to begin the drawdown, noting that violence has dipped over the past two weeks.

"I'd say, obviously, that is a positive development," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily press briefing, though he added, "We continue to anticipate as we get closer to the 31st of August a traditional uptick of violence around Ramadan and as those that are left try to gain attention."

Gibbs also said President Obama received an update on government formation in Iraq, and that he is also "satisfied with the progress that we continue to see on the security side."

Image: Iraq's Army Chief Zebari and U.S. Lieutenant General Barbero hold a news conference at an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk
Iraq's Army Chief Babakir Zebari (L) and U.S. Lieutenant General Michael D. Barbero hold a news conference at an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk, 250 km (150 miles) north of Baghdad, August 10, 2010. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani (IRAQ - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS MILITARY)Thaier Al-sudani / X01706

The changes in Iraq are not a "quick process," Gibbs conceded, " But we are on target by the end of the month to end our combat mission, turn over bases that Americans have been on to the Iraqis, and transition our role there."

Yet there remain deep gaps in training and equipment for the roughly 675,000 members of the security forces. Even more important, sectarian and ethnic divisions among various security branches have been only superficially addressed and threaten to re-ignite tensions.

Sectarian tensions
Nationally, the predominantly Shiite federal police became notorious during the sectarian conflict of 2006-2007, when officers allegedly worked alongside Shiite militias that kidnapped and murdered thousands of Sunnis. Interior Minister Jawad Bolani has since purged many of the most ardently sectarian commanders. But little has been done to change the heavy Shiite dominance.

Further stoking sectarian tensions was the April discovery of a secret prison in Baghdad where Sunni terrorism suspects were tortured. The prison was shut under U.S. pressure.

The army, like the police, is mostly Shiite, but has a Kurdish chief of staff, and since 2006 has allowed nearly 20,000 fired Sunni soldiers and officers to rejoin its ranks.

The concerns about security readiness are exacerbated by the political disarray resulting from the inconclusive March parliamentary elections. Although a Sunni-backed party narrowly topped the poll, Sunnis stand to be sidelined anew after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki allied with other Shiites in a grab for parliamentary power.

So Iraq is likely to be without a new government when the American combat role ends, which U.S. officials have said will likely cause an uptick in violence as al-Qaida insurgents exploit the situation.

Zebari, a Kurd, is said by aides to have an uneasy relationship with al-Maliki and plans to retire as soon as a replacement is found, The Associated Press reported.

'We need the Americans'
"We need the Americans until we get strong," Yasser Majid, a 26-year-old Shiite army lieutenant, told the AP during a patrol in the Iraqi town of Jalula earlier this summer. "Otherwise it could go back to just like it was in 2006 with sectarian violence."

The readiness gap means that the army is still performing some of the roles that ought to fall to the police, such as manning city checkpoints where cars are searched for bombs.

After seven years of working alongside the American military, the Iraqi army of about 248,000 soldiers is widely viewed as the best trained and best equipped of the security forces.

But the troops should be guarding the borders, not manning checkpoints, said Col. Maan Muhanad. "The police are supposed to do it, but the city still needs the army."

Soldiers cruise the streets in U.S.-made Humvees and carry American rifles. But they and U.S. officials agree their hand-held explosive detectors are inferior and have often failed to flag cars used to bomb government buildings in Baghdad over the last year.

Additionally, the army's intelligence-gathering is so poor that it still largely depends on American-supplied information, one of the few functions the U.S. military still commands since pulling out of Iraq's cities more than a year ago.

U.S. officials cite opinion polls showing most Iraqis have faith in their security forces, and Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, who oversees U.S. military trainers, predicts they will at least be able to protect the country — even if they are far from perfect — by the time American troops are scheduled to fully leave at the end of 2011.

Yet many Iraqis remain skeptical.

Most members of the forces "are not professional and can't get rid of their sectarian feelings," Ahmed Khudier, 47, a Baghdad Sunni told the AP last month. "Despite all of their misdeeds and mistakes, we regard the American forces as a safety valve and we fear security will deteriorate after the U.S. withdrawal."