CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — Iraqi leaders are having an intense and ongoing dialogue about whether to ask U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after the scheduled Dec. 31 withdrawal date, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said Monday.
Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Some 46,000 American service members still are in Iraq, and the command has made preparations to begin withdrawing the remaining forces by the end of the year. The withdrawal date was set as part of a U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed in 2008.
U.S. forces will continue to train Iraqi security forces, Austin said.
“There are some things they need to do to ensure they have the capability they need for the future to protect their sovereignty,” he explained. Overall, he added, the Iraqis need to continue to work on their governmental institutions, especially rule of law.
Preparations for the drawdown already have begun, Austin said. The command went from 92 bases in January to 52 in July.
“We’ve done that while remaining engaged with the Iraqi security forces and helping and training them as best we can,” the general said. “We’ve also redeployed about 1 million pieces of equipment, and we’ve got about a million or so to go in the next several months.”
Though Austin wouldn’t give a specific timeline for the redeployment, he did say the longer it continues, the harder it would be to reverse it.
“It’s evident to everyone that once we get into the October (and) November time frame, you are really taking things apart that are difficult to put back together,” he said.
Under the security agreement, Iraq — as the host country — is responsible for providing security for U.S. forces, Austin noted.
“We fully expect the Iraqis will do that,” the general said. “We continue to work with them as partners to address threats. That’s always the first option. If there is something I need to do to protect my soldiers, and there is not a way to do that through the Iraqis, I will do what needs to be done to make sure my troops are protected.”
The general said redeploying the Americans out of the country is the easy part.
“The harder parts are moving the mountains of equipment and closing the bases,” he said. “Ideally, what you want to do if you were me is maintain as much capability to protect yourself as you can for as long as you can. As you get closer to the fall, it becomes harder and harder to do.”
All this could change if Iraq requests that American help continue after the Dec. 31 deadline. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others believe the Iraqis will need American help in the years ahead, Austin said.
“Prime Minister Maliki has said he has an emerging capability to provide for the internal security, but they still need to work on intelligence collection, logistics and those types of things,” Austin said. “But he has been clear about his inability to protect the skies, some concerns about the borders and (that) there is more work that needs to be done about combined arms training with the new equipment he is getting.”
Austin said he agrees with the prime minister’s assessment.
“There clearly is work that needs to continue, but it is their choice as to how they go about doing that,” he said. “We can help them, (or) they can ask for help from a number of other sources.”
“Quite frankly, we’re not pushing the Iraqis to ask us for help,” Austin continued. “All we’re saying is if they are going to ask us for help, [they should know] that sooner is better for us, because it will not cause us to disassemble things that we will then have to spend money to reassemble at a later date.”
While U.S. troops in Iraq are aware of the approaching deadline, they simply are going about their missions, the general said.
“They are trying to do as much as they can to develop their force,” Austin said. “I have folks out there helping advise, train and assist Iraqi forces. We’ve been involved in providing security for the provincial reconstruction teams.
“With 46,000 troops that are working throughout the country, you don’t have a lot of slack,” he said. “Everybody is punching way above their weight class. And they are excited about helping create the Iraqi forces.”