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.

Congress last month cut $550 million from the amount the State Department had requested for Iraq initiatives. That is forcing diplomats to reassess plans to build three diplomatic posts in disputed territories in northern Iraq where tension between Arabs and Kurds have the potential to turn violent.

Jacob J. Lew, who is deputy secretary of state for management and resources, said last week that he understands lawmakers won't give the State Department unlimited resources.

"But frankly, we cannot send civilians into places like Mosul without recognizing the security requirements that are there," he said at a round table discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, according to a transcript. "So at some level, the question is: Do you undertake the mission or don't you undertake the mission?"

Plans to declare an end to the United States' combat role in Iraq on Sept. 1 are being marred by a political crisis in Baghdad and rising violence.

Odierno, who will give up command Sept. 1, said those challenges should not impede drawing down to 50,000 troops by the end of this month. The remaining troops will be directed to focus mostly on training and advising Iraqi security forces.

"They have taken over responsibility," Odierno said, referring to the Iraqis. "In my mind, they have proven they can do this."

Having American soldiers take on conventional combat roles in this era would be unwise, Odierno said.

"It's a good thing we're not out there every day doing operations," he said, speaking in his office in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. "I think that would be counterproductive today."

Iraqi politicians have been arguing since the March 7 parliamentary elections over who is entitled to form the next government.

Odierno said it is imperative that Iraqis move quickly to form a new government, but he said the United States can no longer play kingmaker in the country's politics.

"Ultimately it has to be an Iraqi solution," the general said. "It cannot be anything but an Iraqi solution."

Staff writer Lori Montgomery in Washington contributed to this report.

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