U.S. commander stresses importance of funding Iraq security forces

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 11:58 AM

BAGHDAD -- The outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said Tuesday that Iraqi security forces will continue to rely heavily on American funding as the U.S. troop drawdown accelerates, forcing them to take on more responsibility.

Gen. Ray Odierno and other American officials have been urging U.S. lawmakers to reconsider plans to substantially cut the amounts the military and State Department have requested for Iraq initiatives next year.

"It's important that we continue to fund the Iraqi security fund so we can make sure they have the foundational capability that we feel comfortable will mitigate the risks associated with U.S. forces leaving," Odierno said in an interview.

Keeping a robust civilian-led U.S. presence as the military ends its combat mission later this month will be costly, but Odierno said it was important to "fund that in such a way where we can continue to engage, continue to develop and continue to have influence in pushing Iraq forward."

The United States has spent roughly $18 billion to date building up Iraqi security forces. In the budget for fiscal year 2011, the Pentagon requested $2 billion for initiatives to further equip and bolster the Iraqi forces.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, earlier this summer slashed that request in half, arguing that Iraq should be paying more of its defense bills.

"They've got a surplus of oil revenue," Levin said in an interview last week. "And we've got a tight budget here. Connect that with the fact that we've got a damned big budget deficit of our own. A billion dollars seems to me to be a very generous contribution."

Next year's budget is not final, and the amount approved for Iraqi security forces might change by the time the budget is signed into law this fall.

But the bleak economic situation in the United States and the rising costs of the expanding U.S. military presence in Afghanistan have become sources of deep concern to U.S. officials in Iraq, who worry that waning resources for Iraq could jeopardize tenuous security gains.

"The perception in Washington, D.C., is that the U.S. mission in Iraq is winding down and that the 'training wheels' have been taken off the Iraqis," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service, an in-house think tank for U.S. lawmakers. "There is a view that the U.S. should continue to exit from Iraq with as few resources as possible."

Odierno said there was a "misinterpretation that Iraq has this huge amount of wealth now," adding that it is unlikely the country will substantially boost its output of crude oil before 2013.

U.S. military officials said they drew up the budget for the Iraqi security forces fund with a view to leaving behind a security apparatus capable of fighting internal and external threats.

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