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Iraq Ready If Obama Orders Quick Exit, Defense Minister Says

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Jassim (left)
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's military is "prepared for the worst" if President Barack Obama orders a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops, Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Jasim has said.

Obama -- who opposed the war in Iraq and campaigned on a pledge to withdraw U.S. combat troops by mid-2010 -- met military chiefs on January 21, his first day in office, and told them to plan for a "responsible military drawdown" from Iraq.

In a security pact which took effect on New Year's Day, the former U.S. administration of President George W. Bush committed to pulling combat troops out of Iraq's towns by mid-2009 and withdrawing entirely from the country by the end of 2011.

Asked if Iraq was ready in case of a quicker U.S. exit, Jasim told a news conference: "We cannot leave our country whether [U.S.] troops withdraw from it or not. We are here, and we have our plans prepared for the worst."

He said Iraq's army was 90 percent ready to conduct combat missions on its own but the military would need until at least mid-2010 to set up a self-sufficient air force.

Iraqi officials have frequently said they do not think Obama's plans would require major changes to the timetable of withdrawals they negotiated with the Bush administration.

Obama has not given a complete definition of the combat troops he would withdraw by mid-2010, leaving some leeway over the size of a force that could remain in Iraq from that point until Bush's 2011 deadline for total withdrawal.

Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf said a speedier U.S. pullout was unlikely, but Iraq would be ready if necessary.

"There are prepared plans for such possibilities. These plans are in hand and ready to execute. But I don't think this will happen because the pact is moving at a quick pace according to the established timetables."