BAGHDAD -- U.S. and Iraqi military officials have said that Iraqi security forces will have reached a sufficient level to ensure internal security by the time the remaining U.S. forces leave by 2012, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports.
On August 12, the most senior Iraqi military officer, Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari, was quoted as saying that "the Iraqi Army will not be able to ensure the country's security until 2020."
Defense Ministry spokesman Muhammad al-Askari told RFE/RL on August 13 that in terms of readiness, the Iraqi forces would be able to take over responsibility when U.S. troops depart at the end of 2011.
But he said that "strategic capacity building, including the air force and air defenses -- to defend the country against external attacks -- will take longer, and this is what [Zebari] meant by his statements."
Askari said a distinction should be made between taking over security, which he said Iraqi forces were capable of doing, and external threats. "But even in the latter case we are steadily building up a defense capacity," he said.
Brigadier General Ralph Baker, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, told RFE/RL on August 13, "We are confident that by December 31, 2011, the Iraqi security forces will be able to maintain internal security and they will have a minimum capability to provide external security."
Baker concurred with Askari, adding that Iraq "still will not have a very modern air force or air defenses, and still will have limited conventional capability."
Baker underlined that "it will be a decision of the government of Iraq: if they want to sustain a long-term military strategic relationship with the U.S., then we can assist in building that capacity."
He pointed out that such a long-term strategic relationship exists with several countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Military analyst Wafiq al-Yasiri told RFE/RL that Zebari "was speaking as a realistic professional soldier when he said the Iraqi Army will not be ready to defend the country's borders against external threats before 2020."
He added that training and equipping a regular army for such tasks takes years longer compared to the time it takes to prepare and equip internal security forces.