U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Iraq will face major security "problems" if U.S. troops leave the country by the end of this year as planned.
"There is certainly on our part an interest in having an additional presence [in Iraq]. And the truth of the matter is, the Iraqis are going to have some problems that they're going to have to deal with if we are not there in some numbers," Gates told a Congressional committee.
"They will not be able to do the kind of job in intelligence fusion. They won't be able to protect their own airspace. They will have problems with logistics and maintenance.''
The withdrawal time schedule was created under a 2008 accord between Baghdad and Washington. Gates said more U.S. troops should stay in Iraq if they are asked to do so by Baghdad.
"But it's their country. It's a sovereign country," Gates said. "And we will abide by the agreement, unless the Iraqis ask us to have additional people there."
U.S. soldiers prepare for a joint patrol with Iraqi police in the city of Kirkuk in September.
Gates comments contradict statements made to U.S. lawmakers on February 4 by the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, James Jeffrey, and the top military commander in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin.
Austin and Jeffrey said they were confident Iraq would be stable after the planned U.S. withdrawal. They also said they had no indication the Iraqis want the U.S. military to remain beyond the target withdrawal date.
One Iraqi military analyst agreed with Gates' summary of Iraq's readiness. "The Iraqi armed forces are not ready yet to deal with any perceived external enemy," retired Major General Tawfiq al-Yasiri told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. "At every level we need more time to complete all aspects of readiness, supplies, armament and training related to this task."'Still A Dangerous World'
Gates made the remarks on February 16 to the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which is reviewing the Obama administration's defense spending requests for 2012.
President Barack Obama on February 14 sent to Congress a budget proposal for fiscal 2012 that calls for $78 billion in Pentagon spending reductions during the next five years.
But Gates warned Congress against pursuing even deeper spending cuts in next year's budget, saying, "We still live in a very dangerous and often unstable world."
The Pentagon said in late January that the United States was on track to complete its scheduled pullout by the end of the year, despite recent violent attacks which, it said, seemed calculated to disrupt that timetable.
The United States formally ended its combat mission in Iraq on August 31 of last year. There are still some 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from a peak of about 170,000.
U.S. military operations now are primarily focused on advising and training local forces, while the State Department has moved to enact a "civilian surge" to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Starting in 2012, the U.S. presence in Iraq is to consist of up to 20,000 civilians at sites that include two embassy branches, two consulates, and three police-training centers. That figure includes armed private-security personnel, as well as support staff and diplomats.
Congress also was advised on February 16 against cutting foreign aid in the drive to reduce budget deficits that have been hovering around $1.5 trillion per year.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the hearing that U.S. military aid to Egypt, which runs about $1.3 billion annually, had been of "incalculable value" in helping Egypt's armed forces become a professional body that can deal with the aftermath of the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.with agency reports