(Recasts with new comments from Dubik)
WASHINGTON, July 9 (Reuters) - Iraq’s combat troops will be almost fully formed by the middle of 2009, according to the senior U.S. Army officer who led the training of Iraqi security forces.
But Iraqi troops will still need some U.S. support, Lt. Gen. James Dubik told Reuters in an e-mail.
Dubik said U.S. forces might need to provide air and fire support, training assistance and other aspects of combat support and professional development.
“One of the forms of partnership will be the partnering of coalition force combat units with Iraqi security forces,” Dubik said in the e-mail, clarifying earlier comments he made to the U.S. House of Representatives armed services committee.
Earlier on Wednesday, Dubik was asked by the committee chairman when Iraqi security forces would be able to take over security from U.S. forces. He responded that Iraq’s ground troops “will mostly be done by the middle of next year.”
Dubik later said Iraqi forces would continue to need U.S. help.
He would not say when U.S. operations supporting Iraq could be completed. He said that depends on when the Iraqi government completes certain tasks, such as purchasing its own aircraft.
“I would not put an X on the calendar,” Dubik told lawmakers when asked for a date when the Iraqis will be able to handle their own security without assistance.
The Iraq war and U.S. troop levels remain a major issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. The United States has 146,000 troops in Iraq.
Dubik’s comments come as officials in Iraq raise the prospect of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces as part of negotiations over a new security deal with Washington. U.S. officials, including military officers, have said they oppose setting dates for withdrawal.
Iraqi security forces have grown to 566,000 as of May 2008, up from 444,000 in June 2007, Dubik said. The quality of those troops also has improved, he said, though leadership is uneven and there are still pockets of sectarianism.
Security gains in Iraq “are dramatic, but can be reversed and can be stymied,” he said.
“Our assistance may change in organization and size, but some form of partnership and assistance, consistent with strategic objectives, is still necessary,” Dubik said.
Iraqi forces now control nine of the country’s 18 provinces, Dubik said. He said in January that Iraqi forces could control all of the country by the end of 2008.
Editing by Sandra Maler
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