WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iraq’s military is preparing an assessment that may acknowledge gaps in the country’s security forces, according to two sources familiar with the matter, a move that could bolster arguments to extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
The review of Iraqi military capabilities, which comes ahead of a planned U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011, is expected to be presented to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other top political leaders, a U.S. congressional aide told Reuters.
“The purpose of this was to sort of bleed some of the political venom out of the debate (over a continued U.S. troop presence) and make it about what it is: which is what are Iraq’s military capabilities,” the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said the analysis was “basically in its final form.”
A second person familiar with the matter, who spoke from Baghdad on condition of anonymity, described it as a “readiness assessment.”
It was not clear whether the results of the assessment would ever be made public or be publicly acknowledged by Iraqi officials.
The United States must withdraw its forces, currently numbering about 48,000, from Iraq by December 31 under a bilateral pact, unless that pact is altered.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday he hoped that Iraqis could find a way to ask the U.S. military to remain in the country in some fashion, but acknowledged “whether we like it or not, we’re not very popular there.”
“From the standpoint of Iraq’s future but also our role in the region, I hope they figure out a way to ask,” Gates said, citing the positive message a continued U.S. role in Iraq would send to the region.
“And I think that the United States will be willing to say ‘yes’ when that time comes,” added Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration who plans to step down at the end of June.
Gates has previously warned that Iraq will face problems in everything from protecting its airspace to using intelligence if the United States withdraws at the end of 2011.
CONCERN OVER ABILITY TO FIGHT INSURGENCY
Some Iraqi officials have also expressed concern over the readiness of Iraqi troops to fend off a stubborn insurgency still capable of carrying out lethal attacks.
President Barack Obama opposed the Iraq war and many of his supporters may balk at a longer presence there. U.S. troops in Iraq have been in an advisory and assistance role to Iraq’s police and army since they ended combat operations last August.
Maliki has repeatedly said in the past foreign troops are no longer needed, but appeared to open the door to a continued U.S. presence earlier this month, saying Iraq’s main political blocs will be asked to discuss whether to keep U.S. forces past the agreed upon withdrawal date.
“The idea is they would have all the Iraqi service chiefs together in kind of rendering this judgment,” the congressional aide said. “I think it’s an attempt to try to focus on what the core of the question is, which is for Iraq: What are the capabilities of our security forces?”
The decision is politically risky for Maliki. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist bloc is part of Maliki’s government, could unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. forces fail to leave by the year-end, his aides said last month.
“The Sadrists clearly want us out, and how much of that is the Sadrists and how much of that is the Iranians behind the Sadrists you can argue about,” Gates said.
He said a continued U.S. military presence would be “reassuring” to Gulf States.
“I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing,” Gates added.