US troops should stay until Iraqi army is 'ready' in 2020, military chief says
Iraq's army chief warned on Wednesday that the planned departure of US troops by the end of 2011 would be premature and that US forces must stay "until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020", contradicting statements by other Iraqi leaders.
AFP - Iraq's top army officer on Wednesday warned that a pullout of all US soldiers by the end of 2011 was premature, after eight of his troops were killed in a brazen attack that exposed shaky security here.
Lieutenant General Babakar Zebari's remarks, which run counter to those of his political leaders, coincide with the exit of thousands of American soldiers under a US declaration to end combat operations in Iraq at the end of August.
"At this point, the withdrawal (of US forces) is going well, because they are still here," Zebari told AFP on the sidelines of a defence ministry conference in Baghdad.
"But the problem will start after 2011 -- the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011.
"If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020."
There are currently 64,000 American soldiers in Iraq, a number that is set to drop to 50,000 by the end of the month.
All US troops must leave the country by the end of next year, according to the terms of a bilateral security pact, and President Barack Obama has insisted that the ongoing withdrawal is on schedule and will not be altered.
The threat to Iraqi security forces was illustrated on Wednesday morning in the central town of Saadiyah, where insurgents lured troops into a booby-trapped house, killing eight soldiers in co-ordinated blasts that marked the start of Ramadan when violence tends to surge.
Three other bodies were found under the rubble of the building, but it was not immediately clear if they were of insurgents or civilians, security and medical officials said.
Gunmen initially opened fire on an army checkpoint at around 5:00 am (0200 GMT) in Saadiyah, 100 kilometres (62 miles) northeast of Baghdad, before fleeing into a nearby house, as a group of soldiers gave chase.
"The house then collapsed because of a bomb," said army Captain Mohanned Ibrahim. "The gunmen escaped through a back door."
Major Hussam Karim at the provincial security command said the initial house bomb had killed six troops and wounded two others, while a second, delayed, bomb hidden in the property's garden killed two soldiers and injured two.
"Now the area is cordoned off, and the army has imposed a curfew, and is searching for the armed men," Karim said.
Dr Abdulrazzaq Mustafa at Saadiyah hospital confirmed the toll, and all three officials said that three bodies had been found that could not be accounted for.
Also on Wednesday, the head of a maternity hospital in Baghdad was shot dead by gunmen who tied up her husband before killing her, an interior ministry official said.
He said Dr Intissar Hassan Mohammed, chief of the Al-Alwiya maternity hospital in central Baghdad, was shot dead but her husband was spared.
According to the Iraqi medical association, the country counted some 34,000 doctors in the 1990s, but that number dropped to just 16,000 in 2008, in the aftermath of the chaos that followed the US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein during which time doctors and nurses were targeted.
The violence comes as Iraq observes Ramadan, which began on Wednesday for Sunnis and will start on Thursday for the country's majority Shiites.
In previous years the Muslim holy month of fasting has coincided with a spike in insurgent activity.
Iraq is also grappling with a five-month-long political impasse after a March 7 parliamentary election failed to produce a clear winner, ushering in as yet fruitless coalition negotiations between the leading parties.