Monday, July 11, 2011

Iraq's Blocs Must Debate The Future

They need to deal with the US pullout issue from the perspective of the people's welfare

By Mayada Al Askari

The day of reckoning has arrived in Iraq. Soon enough, Iraqis and their political leaders have to decide about the US military troops' extension. However, no one in the Iraqi government is ready to be the first one to say yes.

Although there are extensive negotiations between US and Iraqi officials regarding the issue of keeping some US forces in the country beyond the December 31 deadline for withdrawal, US Admiral Mike Mullen told reporters at a Pentagon press conference recently that the negotiations are tough. The surprise is that the whole issue is facing stiff opposition in Iraq, and not from Moqtada Al Sadr, head of the anti-US Sadrist movement, alone.

He said the discussions were addressing both the size of a possible US military mission as well as the capabilities that Iraqi forces lacked.

Indeed there are gaps in capabilities Iraqis are going to face in air power, air defence and the use of intelligence if the Americans withdraw at the end of the year.

These gaps were recognised a long time ago. Back in July 2010, I interviewed Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, Deputy Commanding General of US forces in Iraq. Asking him about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over responsibility from the Americans and if the gap will be hard to fill, he said: "The Iraqi air force has 100 aircraft, 57 trained pilots with helicopters and fixed wings, in addition to several C30s." They continue to grow every day as their size doubled from 2,700 to 5,400 personnel during last year, he added.

What he did not say is that Iraq does not have trained pilots or serious aerial cover if the US withdraws, and he did not mention the fact that Iraq has only one radar which is standing on its last foot.

In a nutshell, Barbero explained the situation as follows: "For example, air sovereignty is in three parts: first it is to see through radars any threats or aircraft coming. The second part is the ability to warn the command and control network. The third part is the ability to respond with fighters. Iraq will not have fighters by December 2011 because it takes a long time to train fighter pilots.

So these areas are under development." But today, only four months away from the day US forces walk out of Iraq, these areas are still undeveloped. Talking to a political leader from both the Dawa party and State of Law Coalition on condition of anonymity, he said that the Dawa party has issued a communiqué stating that the US forces should leave the country according to schedule.

How about our military capabilities and external threats? Very frankly, we do not believe we shall need a strong airforce for the time being, he said. Syria has its internal issues; Iran has just signed numerous MOUs with Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, and Turkey will not subject itself to international criticism by attacking Iraq. He also pointed out the fact that the US has trained Iraqi forces to be able to confront terrorist attacks in a manner that is unmatched in the entire region, the Middle East and beyond.

No agreement

Understandably, the withdrawal or extension of US troops is the most difficult test for Al Maliki, as opposition parties are standing on the sidelines waiting for him to declare his position as a commander of the armed forces. However, he has yet to comment on this.

The Dawa Party that he leads has issued a statement in support of the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq. This is in contrast to other major political blocs in Iraq who show their support for the withdrawal in public but call for their extension in secret.

Until last Saturday, Al Maliki's government failed to decide and agree about asking US forces to remain or pull out in December, postponing the whole issue for another fortnight. The problem as indicated by a US embassy official is that Iraqis haven't come to any agreement within their own barracks about what it is they might need in terms of tasks they want the Americans to perform.

Chances are that the Iraqi government that was established after months of unjustified delays and which still lacks three key ministers (Defence, Interior and National security) may never reach a unanimous decision regarding US troops.

Although most people in Iraq are sceptical about the matter, the Obama administration also has a limited time to explain and convince the American public about the necessity of an extended US presence in Iraq.

Al Maliki is concerned about his political reputation, and needs to emerge as a national hero. The Sadrists are threatening to re-activate their Youm Al Mawoud military arm if the US troops are allowed to stay on, and Dr Eyad Allawi, Chairman of the Iraqiya list who has serious issues with Al Maliki who pushed him aside after the elections, addressed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) recently, where he outlined the futility of US troops remaining in Iraq.

Iraqi political blocs must sit together, sooner or later, and decide about the country's future.

This time, and for the first time since 2003, it would be a great idea if they were to deal with the problem from the perspective of the welfare of Iraqi people for a change, and not from the political perspective of each political bloc in Iraq's rainbow of sorry politicians.

This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 11/07/2011

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