A top American general in Iraq said Wednesday that as U.S. troop withdrawals continue, it will be more and more difficult to change direction if the Baghdad government decides toward the end of the year that it wants some American forces to stay behind.
“There is paralysis at the strategic level,” Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, the deputy commanding general of U.S. Forces-Iraq, told reporters in a telephone briefing. He said that so far he has gotten no official word on reaching a new agreement on troops from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is serving as minister of defense and minister of interior while those posts remain vacant.
Under current plans, all 47,000 American military personnel now in Iraq are scheduled to be out by Dec. 31, except for some 157 who will remain to manage the multibillion-dollars worth of military equipment purchased by Iraq through the Pentagon’s military sales program.
Various Iraqi political factions have been deliberating over whether to request that some U.S. troops extend their stays.
While the Iraqi press has reported that there is a desire among Iraqi officials for some U.S forces to remain in country to help continue training Iraq’s army, navy and air force, Helmick said there has been no such official communication from the government. Training of the country’s police is being turned over to the State Department, and the U.S. Embassy will take the lead in U.S.-Iraq relations when all but a handful of American military personnel remain in country.
“Once we move out, it’s going to be hard to turn around,” Helmick said, noting that he still has 60 large U.S. bases to close and is trying to oversee the removal of some 10,000 pieces of equipment.
“Late in the year it will be difficult to change direction,” he said, adding that, if necessary, it could be done.
Asked why American troops might be needed, Helmick cited Iraq’s lack of radar coverage of the skies over its borders. “Their radars can’t defend their air space,” he said, noting that U.S. radar handles it now. “How they deal with it in the future is up to them.”
He also pointed out that although armed attacks in Iraq have dropped sharply from four years ago, there are still an average of 15 a day and 135 a week across the country, with what he called “an uptick” coming over the past 90 days.
American Army platoons still guard nine Provincial Reconstruction Teams operating in areas of Iraq, but they are to be closed down as U.S.combat teams leave. They are to be replaced by two consulates at Irbil and Basra that will be guarded by contracted security forces.