BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq does not need more soldiers and police to wage war against insurgents as U.S. combat operations end, a senior Iraqi security official said.
Instead, it needs better intelligence gathering and a way to stop countries intent on torpedoing Iraq’s nascent democracy from supporting Sunni Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda, or Shi’ite militia, said Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed al-Khafaji.
“Whether the U.S. troops are here or not, these groups will continue their operations because they are the hired guns of regional states with agendas, which want to sabotage democratic Iraq,” Khafaji told Reuters in an interview on Saturday.
“They come from known dictatorships. They have a single message — to kill Iraqis and scorch the earth they live on.”
The end to U.S. combat operations on Tuesday and a fall in troops to 50,000 ahead of a full pullout in 2011 is a milestone in the 7-1/2 year war launched by ex-President George W. Bush.
President Barack Obama, whose Democratic party faces a war-weary public in Congressional elections in November, said on Saturday that scaling back the U.S. military presence in Iraq meant he was fulfilling a promise to U.S. voters to end the war.
Iraq would “chart its own course” now, Obama said.
Iraq is less violent than it was in 2006/07 when the sectarian slaughter and insurgency unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion peaked. But it is far from stable or secure.
Suspected al Qaeda-linked insurgents have launched a stream of attacks, in particular against Iraqi police.
Iraq’s political leaders have also failed to agree on a new government almost six months after an election that produced no outright winner, leaving Iraq adrift in a political vacuum.
Little will change on the ground when the six remaining U.S. military brigades in Iraq formally turn their focus toward advising and assisting their Iraqi counterparts on September 1.
Iraqi police and soldiers have been taking the lead since a bilateral security pact came into force in 2009, and U.S. troops pulled out of Iraqi urban centers more than a year ago.
“We have no shortage of security forces ... and we have no problem with weapons to fight terrorism,” said Khafaji.
Khafaji said Iraq had four different intelligence services but the information gathered was not always making its way down the pipeline to frontline troops. This was a shortcoming.
“The next battle is an intelligence battle, which must be waged effectively,” he said. The deputy minister, who is responsible for Iraq’s borders, said another challenge was to improve relations with other countries and persuade them to stop supporting violence.
“The important point is that the terrorism operations depend on financial support from neighbouring countries,” Khafaji said.
“It must be a high priority of the government to prevent neighbouring countries from interfering in Iraqi affairs by developing political and economic agreements with them.”
Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accuses unnamed Sunni Arab states of supporting insurgents opposed to the rise of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to political power after the 2003 ouster of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Relations with Saudi Arabia, which eyes Iran’s increased influence in Iraq with concern, are particularly frosty.
The U.S. military and Iraqi officials, meanwhile, say Shi’ite militia in Iraq are trained, funded and armed by Iran. Tehran denies the charge.
Khafaji said foreign fighters continued to come across Iraq’s porous borders. He did not name any countries.
“No one slips through the border unless these states so desire and direct,” he said.
Iraq has been digging a three-meter deep trench along the border, starting with Syria. A $49 million surveillance system was to have been set up by June. That has been delayed.
The Iraqi border police also have plans for 800 additional border posts, which will require 11,000 additional guards.
“The battle for freedom continues, but freedom costs blood,” Khafaji said. “The battle now is not between the terrorists and the security forces. It involves all Iraqis.”
Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Jon Hemming