Controversy erupted between government and military officials last week after a statement made by the Army Chief, Babaker Zebari, to the British Daily Telegraph Newspaper in which he admitted for the first time the
Babaker said that his country's forces "will not be able to completely take over the security file by the year 2020 and will need U.S. support until then," adding, "Now things are still going well despite the troop withdrawal because the US army is still present. Problems will start to surface after 2011. Politicians need to find other means to fill the vacuum after that date. If asked, I would tell politicians that the U.S. army should stay until the Iraqi army is ready."
His comments came just days before the end of the US combat mission at the end of August and at a time when violent attacks have been on the increase across the country.
The comments contain implicit criticism of Nouri al-Maliki, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as well as of his ruling coalition. Officials and deputies close to him are keen to refute the allegations.
"Security forces, by the end of next year, will be able to confront armed and violent groups and protect the internal security. There is no need for permanent US military bases," claimed the optimistic Ali al-Dabbagh, the government spokesman and leader of al-Maliki's coalition.
Similarly, Jawad al-Boulani, the Interior Minister, stressed that his Ministry's forces have become capable of assuming security responsibilities across the country. On the sidelines of a ceremony organised by his ministry to celebrate the graduation of high school students, Bulani said:
"We have a message which we want to relay to the whole world: Iraq has become a safe country and its forces are capable of protecting its security."
The Prime Minister himself defended Iraq’s readiness to respond during a speech at the Second Leadership Conference of the Army Command, held at the Ministry of Defence last week.
"Iraq's power lies not in its arms but in its democracy, unity and in the awareness of its armed forces sons." He stressed that with “faith and high morals, the Iraqi soldiers can handle all situations."
The Defence Minister, Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, remained silent and did not make any statement regarding the Iraqi troops' readiness to assume the security responsibilities but the military’s media spokesman, sat alongside the Defence Minister and the premier, claimed that statements made by the army chief “were misunderstood and misinterpreted."
The statements of those defending the reputation of Iraq’s forces are refuted by the escalation of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere over the last four months. Many question marks are being raised over police and army performance.
"Iraqi troops are incapable of protecting themselves. All the security breaches we have seen in last month confirm that the army is not ready. The Police and the military are being attacked everyday by insurgents in the different areas of the country leaving many of them dead,” said Thaer al-Sudan, a former colonel in the Iraqi Air Force.
In al-Anbar, Baghdad, Babil and Wasit provinces violence has escalated since 10 May. Well-coordinated bombings, assassinations and armed attacks have left at least 650 people dead, 250 in Basra alone, according to Iraqi security and health sources.
In the first week of August, a series of bombings in Basra killed about 50 people and injured 185. These were followed by other attacks in Baghdad where the death toll reached more than 60.
According to statistics issued by the Ministries of Health, Defence and Interior, July was the deadliest month in Iraq in the past two years. 535 people were killed including 396 civilians and 139 security personnel. More than thousand people were injured.
Observers and military officials warn against a deterioration in security under stalled negotiations over the formation of a new Iraqi government, especially as with US troops about to withdraw.
Only 50,000 will remain by September, with their tasks limited to training and support. Washington has stressed that by 2011 its troop numbers will not exceed a few hundred soldiers who will serve as advisers.
The Iraqi army, meanwhile, numbers 260,000 troops. The Ministry of Defence hope to increase that number to 300,000 and equip them with the best, most modern weaponry.
A military source within the Ministry of Defence claimed that “powerful political parties” were trying to resist the strengthening of the army, to prevent their use in any future internal conflicts.
MP Abdul Karim al-Samaraei, Vice President of the Security Committee in the former parliament, confirmed these claims. Samaraei, an Iraqiya deputy said certain internal and external forces have objections to military increases, with some vetoing further arming of the military.
“Obstacles are placed in our way to hinder the arming of our forces and the purchase of weapons,” he claimed.
Samaraei refered to the Kurdish position over a recent order for F16 fighters from the US. He also said he believed that neighbouring countries “fear our troops will become as strong as they were before,” implicitly suggesting Kuwait and Iran stood in opposition.
The building of the forces that is going ahead has come in for much criticism. Nepotism, favouritism, partisan affiliations and other forms of corruptions have “become and inherent part of the process,” says former deputy Ammar Tohme, a member of the parliament's security committee and major critic of the army.
“The army’s lack of readiness is not just about a lack of arms, skill or training,” he revealed.
"There is also administrative and financial corruption, bribery, thefts and factional and partisan affiliations plaguing the military establishment and the ministries of defence and interior."
The most visible manifestation of this are the bribes paid by soldiers to their officers to avoid work and escape military duty, especially when units are facing an increased threat of violence.
Many observers lay the blame for the army’s problems with Paul Bremer, who was the US civil administrator of Iraq after the fall of Saddam in 2003. He ordered the complete recreation and restructuring of the Iraqi army and many believe that this was done too hastily.