Without more help — and quickly — Iraqi security forces may not be able to protect the fragile nation from insurgents and invaders after American troops leave at the end of the year, according to a U.S. report released Sunday.
The semiannual report by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction also cites data by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad showing that the nation's government, economy, legal systems and basic services like electricity and water remain unstable.
The 156-page report forecasts a dim outlook at best for Iraq's near future as the United States steps back after nearly eight years of war and billions of dollars in aid.
It largely blames corruption in Iraq's military and police forces for wasted resources and bad planning in running its bases and maintaining its equipment. Congress is still weighing how much money to give Iraqi forces this year.
"Several U.S. observers noted real or potential gaps in Iraqi security forces capabilities that could affect its ability to lock in hard-won security gains," the report concluded.
"The U.S. faces the choice of making additional investments to fill essential gaps in Iraqi security forces capabilities or accept the risk that they will fall short of being able to fully secure Iraq from internal and external threats by the time U.S. forces depart."
Under the security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year. The Obama administration would consider keeping some troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline, but only if Iraqi leaders ask for them.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said Iraqi security forces are able to protect the nation, and does not believe foreign forces will be needed after this year. But Iraq's top military officer, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, last summer said U.S. troops should stay for up to another decade to help secure the country's borders from invaders.
More than 200 Iraqis — mostly security forces and Shiites — have been killed in insurgent attacks over the last two weeks that underscore the country's continuing instability. Still, the report warns that a lack of electricity, water and sewage pose one of the greatest threats to Iraq's shaky peace.
"The lack of sufficient basic services will be the most likely cause of future instability in Iraq," it said, adding that power demands likely won't be met until 2014 at the earliest. "The lack of perceived improvements in Iraq's water, sewage, and electricity systems could lead to popular unrest more so than political or sectarian disagreements."
A two-month study of Iraq's basic services, politics and government, economy and legal systems in each of the nation's provinces found widespread instability in almost every area.
Additionally, the return of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraq also poses "a major challenge for the new government," the report found, noting that the firebrand populist controls a commanding chunk of parliament lawmakers.
"This significant political power places him in a position to demand policy concessions from Prime Minister al-Maliki," it concluded.