BESMAYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Some Iraqi soldiers are worried about the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Iraq at the end of the year and say the country’s security forces need more training to use the modern tanks and jets it has bought.
The U.S. military moved into an advisory and assistance role to Iraq’s 660,000-strong police and military after ending combat operations last August. But the readiness of Iraqi troops to fend off a still-potent insurgency remains a concern among many.
Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, the U.S. military is due to depart by December 31 under a security agreement between the two countries.
“The Iraqi army needs the Americans for training because most of the weapons are modern and we need training to use them,” Iraqi soldier Karim Saleh told Reuters on Monday during a live fire exercise at Besmaya training camp, 90 km (55 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
Iraqi Army Brigadier Abbas Fadhil, the base commander at Besmaya agreed. “I don’t get involved with policy, that depends on the government ... (but) we need this training. We need this for the people,” he said. “For us, it’s important (to have U.S. training beyond 2011).”
Iraq has bought a range of modern military equipment to boost its forces, including armored personnel carriers, patrol boats, M1A1 Abrams tanks and towed and self-propelled howitzers.
It is expected to receive 99 out of 140 M1A1 Abrams tanks by the end of this month and the rest by the end of the year. However, some equipment will be delivered after 2011, and some Iraqi officials are worried the training received by the time U.S. troops depart will not be sufficient to operate it.
Much of the U.S. troops’ training has been focused on Iraq’s army and police. Its navy and air force — which suffered a major setback earlier this year after Iraq diverted funds for the purchase of F-16 fighter jets to its national food ration scheme — are underdeveloped comparatively.
Bombings and killings remain a daily occurrence and although violence has subsided from the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-07, Shi’ite militia and Sunni insurgents are still able to carry out lethal attacks.
Two suicide car bombers killed five people and wounded 20 others on Monday near the western gate of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where Iraq is scheduled to host an Arab League summit next month.
On a recent trip to Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed the Iraqi government to decide quickly whether it wanted U.S. forces to stay longer. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said his police and army are ready and U.S. troops will not be needed beyond the year’s end.
On Monday, Iraqi forces at Besmaya demonstrated their capability with an exercise showing how units of the air force and army can work together.
Saleh, who was trained at Besmaya by U.S. soldiers, said the U.S. military had made a big impact in developing the Iraqi army’s combat abilities but stressed the need for further training beyond 2011 to help modernize the security forces.
“Iraqi trainers have become experienced but not at the same level as American trainers,” he said. “Without them, the Iraqi army will remain unchanged and will not develop ... the Iraqi government has to keep the Americans to train our army.”
Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton