BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s defense minister on Saturday warned of the dangers of withdrawing U.S. forces before the end of 2011, a date set with Washington in a security pact opposed by some lawmakers.
Defense Minister General Abdel Qader Jassim said withdrawing before that date would threaten Iraq’s oil exports, enable neighboring countries to encroach on Iraqi territory and give free reign to foreign spies.
“The period of the timetabled withdrawal gives us enough time to complete our abilities — training, combat and technical — and secures us great support,” Jassim told a news conference in Baghdad.
His comments came a day after thousands of followers of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested in Baghdad against the pact, which cabinet approved on Sunday.
Next week, parliament is scheduled to vote on the deal, though some legislators say the session could be delayed.
While Sadr’s followers oppose the pact outright and members of his bloc in parliament have disrupted parliamentary debates on it, other groups have reservations about some details.
“Successive governments have not succeeded in disarming the heavy and medium weapons of, and I am not naming any names, the armed blocs and armed wings,” he added, justifying the pact’s 2011 withdrawal date.
Sadr’s supporters have staged several violent uprisings since 2003 and the government has accused him of failing to disband his Mehdi Army militia, despite a ceasefire.
The security pact governs the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and will replace a United Nations mandate which expires at the end of the year. Iraqi politicians are under pressure to pass the deal to avoid an extension of the mandate.
The defense minister said Iraq’s navy was not ready to assume responsibility from U.S.-led forces for protecting offshore terminals that export the country’s crude.
“If we evict them in an unplanned or sudden way, then ... piracy will begin here ... the ability to export will be hugely threatened,” he said.
Some countries shell certain areas of Iraq daily, he said, without naming any, and the presence of U.S. forces deters them from expanding their operations. Turkey frequently shells northern Iraq in its hunt for Kurdish separatist rebels.
Additional reporting by Aws Qusay; Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Giles Elgood