U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. "As long as I have an army and I'm a Third… (Ahmad al-Rubaye AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Baghdad — Some form of U.S. military presence will be needed in Iraq at least until 2016 to provide training, support and maintenance for the vast quantity of military equipment and weaponry that Iraq is buying from America, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said.
In addition, Iraq will continue to need help with intelligence gathering after 2011, and the fledgling Iraqi air force will require U.S. assistance at least until 2020, the date by which Iraq aims to achieve the capability to defend its airspace, Obeidi said.
The comments were made in an interview a week after President Obama declared the end of U.S. combat operations and reaffirmed America's commitment to pull out all its troops by the end of 2011, under the terms of a security agreement reached by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government in 2008.
"Maybe endlessly," said Obeidi when asked how long U.S. support may be necessary. "As long as I have an army and I'm a Third World country, and I can't pretend that I'm better than that … I will need assistance.
"I don't think any reasonable person would reject any kind of help from the U.S. and the European nations," he said. Iraq has an agreement with Britain to help train its navy and patrol its waters, which expires in November.
Obeidi, who is regarded as a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, stopped short of calling for the continuation of U.S. bases in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawal of all troops. At this point, 50,000 U.S. troops remain in the country to advise and assist Iraqi forces. The form of any future presence will be up to the next Iraqi government, in negotiations with Washington, Obeidi said.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that many in Iraq's defense establishment, as well as within the U.S. military, believe that Iraqi security forces will need U.S. military assistance for many years.
In an interview last month, the chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces, Gen. Babakir Zebari, predicted the need for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq until 2020, and said he would like to see America maintain "three or four bases" to help deter possible threats from Iraq's neighbors. U.S. officials have also said Iraq's army will need assistance beyond 2011.
Obeidi said he didn't envisage a need for U.S. troops to help defend Iraq's borders, even though Iraqi troops won't be ready to do so until 2016. There are other means to defend a country, he said, such as through peace treaties with neighboring countries.
But, he said, trainers and advisors will continue to be necessary and they will need troops to protect them.
Iraq has ordered or requested more than $13 billion worth of U.S. arms, as well as a shipment of 18 F-16s, which aren't expected to arrive at least until 2013 even if the order receives swift congressional approval.
"It's inevitable," he said. "We have equipment such as tanks, aircraft, naval equipment, and it's all coming from the United States. They won't be fully ready until 2016, so how are we going to train on them? By mail? We will need the help of specialists and experts and trainers and those people are going to need life support and force protection."
Otherwise, he added, "all the expenses I paid for … will be in vain."
The question of what kind of presence would be necessary is likely to come to the fore only after a new Iraqi government is in place. Negotiations among political factions dragged into a seventh month this week, and the participants have yet to make any significant progress toward agreeing on who will be in charge.
The issue of a continuing American presence is politically sensitive in Baghdad and Washington. No Iraqi politician seeking to head the next government could risk calling for the U.S. military, which led the 2003 invasion of their country, to stay longer. The faction loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose support could prove crucial to any future government, opposed the agreement that allowed U.S. troops to stay as long as 2011, and has said it will not back any government that permits them to stay any longer.
Neighboring Iran campaigned hard to prevent the signing of the 2008 security agreement, and would probably exert pressure on its Shiite allies in Baghdad to head off any long-term U.S. presence.
Maliki, who is hoping to retain his leadership post in the new government, matched Obama's address to Americans last week with a televised speech of his own in which he welcomed the end of the combat mission and pledged that the agreement calling for the total withdrawal of all U.S. troops would be implemented in full.
But a request for continued American help after a new Iraqi government is formed might not prove so controversial, Obeidi suggested.