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 US military presence in Iraq.
The review of Iraqi military capabilities, which comes ahead of a planned US withdrawal by the end of this year, is expected to be presented to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top political leaders, a US congressional aide said.
“The purpose of this was to sort of bleed some of the political venom out of the debate [over a continued US 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 US must withdraw its forces, currently numbering about 48,000, from Iraq by Dec. 31 under a bilateral pact, unless that pact is altered.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Tuesday he hoped that Iraqis could find a way to ask the US 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 US 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 former US president George W. Bush’s administration who plans to step down at the end of next month.
Gates has previously warned that Iraq will face problems in everything from protecting its airspace to using intelligence if the US withdraws at the end of next year.
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.
US troops in Iraq have been in an advisory and assistance role to Iraq’s police and army since they ended combat operations in August last year.
Maliki has repeatedly said in the past foreign troops are no longer needed, but appeared to open the door to a continued US presence earlier this month, saying Iraq’s main political blocs will be asked to discuss whether to keep US 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?”