“We will be fully ready to take over after US withdrawal in 2011” – Iraq

This week’s surge in violence in Iraq has raised doubts over its forces’ ability to cope with the challenges ahead. RT spoke on this issue with General Mohammed Al-Askari, spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of Defense.
RT: Do you feel confident that the Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi security force will be able to keep the situation in Iraq calm?

MA: It is a good question. It’s worth talking about the readiness or not of the Iraqi security forces, because the number of American troops left in this country is 49,700 and something. It’s important – the Americans are gone. What’s also important is the timing. The timing of implementing this phase of the agreement was put forward by the minister of defense – why did he choose this time? Each timing has a meaning. There are steps that need to be taken so that the Iraqi forces will be ready by December 31, 2011. We believe that we will be ready enough to have full security control at that stage and for all the American forces to leave Iraq.

RT: Are you saying that the timeframe is given by the Iraqis are not motivated from the American side?

MA: So what if that’s true? If the recent departure of American troops was because Washington wanted to improve Obama’s picture – so what? Or if it was because of American pressure or desire, it doesn’t matter to me as an Iraqi. As an Iraqi, I welcome the American withdrawal and I wish that we will be ready by the December 31, 2011, to say goodbye to the Americans for good, because we will be fully ready to take over. As Iraqis, we cannot accept that the Americans will stay in Iraq for good. I don’t care about the reason, but we will not let anyone stay in Iraq for a long time.

The timing issue is very important. Having timetables is critical because they serve as a pressurizing factor on us – we have to meet each deadline, we have to improve the levels of the Iraqi security forces. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that we have put timetables for everything we are doing. The Afghans are not doing that. They are relying on the Americans and NATO to do things for them.

RT: Do you think that the withdrawal of the American army from Iraq will have any effect – and if yes, what kind of effect, on the situation in Afghanistan?

MA: The withdrawal from Iraq will of course affect to a great deal the situation in Afghanistan. It has a direct impact because it’s too hard now for anyone to have two wars at the same time, and it’s too hard for anyone to have a big war. The Americans now are having two big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So it made sense for the Americans when they felt there was a desire from Iraqis, and an improvement in the security situation here, to withdraw and concentrate on their own war in Afghanistan.

Their big war now is in Afghanistan and they are moving out of Iraq because they think the situation here has improved.

RT: The US army says its troops that will remain in Iraq will only be in training. Is it true or will be some element of combat, will some of those soldier still be involved in fighting units?

MA: The Americans have three main jobs – training, advice and support, especially airborne support. We don’t have fighter jets, we only have helicopters. The main thing we need from them is airborne support – for jetfighters and for intelligence.

RT: The Iraqis are used to Russian weaponry, why now is there a turn to embrace American weapons?

MA: Russia actually didn’t co-operate in this field with us. We are very serious about getting Russian weaponry, not only because their weapons are good and effective, but also because the Iraqi army has been training on their weapons for 40 or 50 years. We have been buying Russian weapons since the 1950s. I was working on rehabilitating and reforming ties with Russia and we took some Iraqi pilots to Russia to be trained. We got some promises from the Russians to resume selling weapons to us, but they thought this would rely on an American decision.

They’re wrong because we have made contacts with Serbia to buy some weapons and we bought some weapons from them. We rejected some American weapons. It’s all up to us. We decide which weapons we want and from whom we will buy them. We still want to have the American weapons, and we are still waiting for their approval to sell us their weapons. We have the Mi-17 – these are helicopters – and we wish that the Russians will maintain the MiG fighters that we have and we wish that they will approve selling us the Mi-25. So far we are still waiting for their reply.

Even the current minister of defense, he studied military science in Russia. I was trained in Russia. Almost all of the Iraqi army was trained in Russia. We want the Russian weaponry, but that doesn’t mean at the same time that we can’t be open to other countries. We buy from Italy, from the US; we want to be open to other countries.

RT: How well-trained have your soldiers been by the Americans?

MA: The current Iraqi soldier is different to the soldiers we had before 2003.

Today’s Iraqi soldiers were young during the 2003 war, but they were also trained on the Russian weaponry, like for instance on Russian tanks. When Iraqi soldiers were trained on American weapons, they understood what they were trained on. Yet we still have the Russian influence – especially the Iraqi pilots who were trained on Russian planes and have done a great many flying hours. We wish that the Russians would help us in this regard, to keep training our pilots and giving us new planes. The Americans are training our soldiers, but whenever we get another expertise, from for example France, or Russia, we go to those countries and we get the help that we ask for.

RT: Will the policy of the Ministry of Defense change when a new government is formed in Iraq?

MA: The ministry’s policy will not change, especially with regards to training and contracts. I want to emphasize again – we really want to involve the Russians.

RT: At the moment the Iraqi security forces are volunteers. There has been a law that has been put forward to reintroduce conscription. Do you think that this law will be implemented?MA: This compulsory service has not been approved yet. It’s still a draft, only the retirement law was approved. For now we don’t need compulsory recruitment because when we ask, for example, for 10,000 volunteers, we have at least 100,000 young people coming to volunteer. So we don’t need it.

Countries need compulsory recruitment when they need soldiers and they don’t have them. Besides, we don’t have the facilities and equipment to train all these personnel when we have them in the compulsory recruitment. We have enough soldiers for now. In the future, when Iraq is stable enough and investment will start coming in, the young men will go towards civilian projects. By that time we will be having a lack of personnel and by that time we will need the compulsory service.

RT: There have been charges that the security forces are not well-trained enough. Just two hours ago there was a bomb not far from here. Do you really think that your army and police can make Iraq a safe and secure place?

MA: They are not untrained, but the training they receive is not enough. When the Americans came and the borders were open to terrorists and violence spread, the Americans dismissed the Iraqi government and did not think to form an Iraqi army before 2004, and it was too late because the terrorists were already in it.

We got volunteers, we gave them brief training and sent them to the field. They were combat soldiers with not enough training. The bombs that are going off in Iraq today are not a measurement of how well these soldiers were trained. Bombs were going off even when the United States was in the country. We need better intelligence – who is behind these bombs and how they manage to still carry them out.