BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's armed forces will not finish a modernization program until 2020, several years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country is completed, the defense minister said.
"The biggest challenge we have on the security level is the transition of security from U.S. forces to Iraqi forces," Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim told Reuters in an interview on February 27.
U.S. troops will speed up the reduction of forces from Iraq after a March 7 parliamentary election in time for a full withdrawal by 2012, although Iraq is still struggling with bombings and other attacks.
Jassim said a development plan for the army, rebuilt from scratch since the 2003 U.S. invasion and which now numbers some 197,000 soldiers, would be finished by 2020.
"We cannot say that we have finished building the Iraqi army as a modern army," he said.
Looming U.S. Pullout
Washington has already pulled its soldiers out of major towns and cities and expects to whittle down troop numbers to 50,000 by the end of August before full withdrawal in 2011.
But the U.S. military commander in Iraq has signaled that he could slow this year's pull-out if the security situation deteriorated following the March ballot.
U.S. troops go on patrols with Iraqi security forces, and provide back up with logistics, training and intelligence, expertise in which Iraqi forces have traditionally been weak.
An Iraqi affiliate of al Qaeda, a Sunni Islamist group, has threatened to prevent the election at any cost, using "military" means to stop what it called a farce aimed at cementing the domination of Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims over Sunnis.
Jassim said that Iraqi forces were on alert for the vote, seen as crucial if Iraq is to bolster its fragile democracy by co-opting feuding factions into the political process.
Iraq plans to deploy tens of thousands of troops and police, restrict vehicle movement and impose curfews to prevent attacks during the election.
"We are expecting the worst. There is no doubt that there are areas where the scale of operations are more concentrated," he said.
Security forces will focus on the violent provinces of Nineveh and Diyala, and high-profile Baghdad.
"You heard the threats like we did. We have evidence that we cannot make public...The terrorist enemy is trying to appear widespread and strong," he said without elaborating.
Jassim is an election candidate in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, which has made better security a plank of its campaign message.
However, although violence has fallen sharply since the days of sectarian slaughter in 2006 and 2007, a series of major bombings in Baghdad since August have shaken the public's faith in Maliki and the security forces, at least in the capital.