CAMP MAREZ, Iraq (AFP) – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that American forces were prepared to stay in any role beyond a scheduled pullout late this year, but time was running out for Iraq to ask.
Gates, who arrived in Baghdad late Wednesday on an unannounced visit, met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Massud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north.
His message to each was the same: finish forming a government and appoint the remaining security ministers; decide where US military help is needed beyond 2011; and agree on the number of US troops after that date.
“My basic message to them is (for us to) just be present in some areas where they still need help. We are open to that possibility,” said the Pentagon chief.
“But they have to ask, and time is running out in Washington,” he said at Camp Marez, the US military base where he visited some of the nearly 50,000 US troops still in Iraq.
That number is down from a peak of more than 170,000 after the US-led 2003 invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein and ahead of the planned full withdrawal late this year.
Beyond 2011, “it obviously would be a presence that is a fraction of the size we have here now. It is truly up to the Iraqis at this point,” he said.
Gates added it was up to Iraqis to decide what numbers would stay, for what period, how they would be drawn down, or whether they would remain in “advise and assist roles, as we have in a number of other countries.”
On Thursday, he hailed the “extraordinary” progress made in Iraq, and said Baghdad set an example for democracy in the region.
“What has been achieved here at huge sacrifice on the part of the Iraqis, on the part of our troops and on the part of the American people is really extraordinary,” he said.
Last Saturday two American soldiers in Iraq were killed, raising the number of US casualties in Iraq since the invasion to 4,443, according to the independent www.icasualties.org.
In the Kurdish capital of Arbil on Friday, Gates met with Barzani, whose powerful political party is a key component of Iraq’s unity government, made up of bickering Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
He urged all leaders to speed up forming a government.
More than a year after an inconclusive general election, Iraq still has no defence, interior or national security ministers, even though Maliki stitched together a deal to form a national unity government in December.
Gates’ message was “it’s important that we get a counterpart because we have some stuff to work out and it’s in both our interests to make sure the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) are in the right place at the end of 2011,” a defence official said.
The US occupation remains an emotive issue, and though privately Iraqi leaders could want US forces to extend their stay, political pressures might not allow them to say so outright.
“The secretary’s fundamental message was: you all need to figure out what you need of us and what’s politically feasible and we’re ready to work with you on how to address those needs,” said Gates’ spokesman, Geoff Morrell.
General Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi armed forces chief of staff, has said his forces would not be able to ensure full security before 2020.
But Maliki, who is a Shiite and backed by the powerful and radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, told Gates Iraqi forces were up to the task of handling security on their own.
“Our armed forces, police and army are now capable of deterring any aggression, and its capabilities to impose security and stability are growing day by day,” Maliki told Gates, according to Iraqi premier’s office.
Gates told a US House of Representatives’ committee in February that Baghdad would face sizeable “problems” after the withdrawal.
He predicted Iraqis would be unable to protect their own airspace, would face intelligence challenges and “have problems with logistics and maintenance.”
US ambassador James Jeffrey told reporters last week that Iraq would continue to face attacks after 2011 from Al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
Al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate has claimed responsibility for a March 29 suicide bombing in Tikrit in which 58 people died and 97 were wounded, the bloodiest since August.
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