Ground troops will have mostly finished combat operations in Iraq by the middle of 2009, said Lieutenant-General James Dubik (photo), a senior US army officer.
His remarks came as the White House said it was opposed to the request made by Baghdad of setting an “arbitrary” date for pulling out troops, as part of a security agreement that is being negociated currently.
“The ground forces will mostly be done by the middle of next year”, James Dubik, who is in charge of training Iraqi troops, told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. That could be between April and August, he said.
But he also said that after that point, US forces might still be needed for air support and training.
He refused to say when operations would be completed for all US troops, and said it depended on when the Iraqi government completes certain tasks, like purchasing its own aircraft.
“I would not put an X on the calendar, Mr Chairman”, Mr Dubik said when asked to name a date when all US forces would complete operations in Iraq.
Lieutenant-General Dubik is retiring, and said that Iraqi security forces had grown to 566,000 personnel as of May 2008, up from 444,000 in June 2007.
‘Partnership and assistance’
The number of “terrorist attacks” in June was down 85 per cent from the same period a year ago, said the Iraqi military on Wednesday.
Security gains in Iraq “are dramatic, but can be reversed and can be stymied”, Mr Dubik said.
“Some form of partnership and assistance … in my opinion is still necessary.” Nine of Iraq’s 18 provinces are now controled by Iraqi forces, he added. In January, he had said that Iraqi forces could control all of the country by the end of 2008.
Experienced leaders and the ability to train its own troops is what the fast-growing Iraqi force lacked, he cautioned.
On the day Lieutenant-General Dubik’s observations came, Dana Perino (photo), White House spokeswoman, told reporters, while travelling with George Bush, the US president, in Japan at the G8 summit, that the US remains opposed to “an arbitrary [troop] withdrawal date”.
She said that Iraqi officials agree with the US, who believes that those decisions should be “based on conditions on the ground”.
Baghdad would not accept any security agreement with the US unless it included dates for the withdrawal of foreign forces, said Iraq’s national security adviser on Tuesday.
But any timetable would depend on security conditions on the ground, said the government’s spokesman.
The debate going on in Baghdad, over the security pact with washington is underscored by those differences. The pact would provide a legal basis for US troops to remain at the end of the year, when a UN mandate expires.
According to the White House, improvements in the security situation in Iraq are partly reflected in the statements from Iraqi officials about a timetable for troop withdrawal.
“I think that is a reflection of first and foremost the positive developments that we’ve seen recently in Iraq, but in addition to that, the negotiations are intensifying”, Ms Perino said.
“This is about their future and they want to take on more of their own responsibility, and we want that too”, she added.
She said she would not put a timetable on when the security pact might be completed.
In Baghdad, the number of rocket and mortar attacks in Iraq that could be linked to Iranian-sponsored fighters had fallen in recent weeks, said Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the second-ranking US commander in Iraq.
He attributed the decline mainly to progress by Iraqi security forces in suppressing radical elements of Shiite militias in the southern cities of Basra and Amara.
He did not know whether the drop in attacks was an intentional gesture by Iran, he added, as the country has strengthened its influence in Iraq since the war began five years ago.
Ahead of parliamentary elections, planned for this fall, Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin said that he was prepared for an increase in violence by insurgents. The prospect of renewed attacks was one factor in deciding the size and type of US forces that would be needed to speed up an American withdrawal, he said.
‘Negociations are ongoing’
“We want to be able to try to work this out quickly and the main reason that we want this is because our troops are going to be there past the end of this year, that’s a fact”, said Ms Perino.
As Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said on Monday that the pact should include provisions for the withdrawal of US troops, the US and Iraqi positions appear to be divergent.
Mr al-Maliki said, during a meeting with Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates, that Iraq had proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides have been negotiating.
“Negotiations are ongoing with the US side and the current attitude is to reach a memorandum of understanding either for immediate US forces withdrawal or timetable withdrawal”, he said.
A formula for the withdrawal of US troops are included in the memorandum“now on the table”, he said.
Iraqi prime minister added that “the goal is to end the presence [of foreign troops]“.