FORT MONROE, Va. — The Iraqi defense minister said yesterday that his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq’s borders from external threat until at least 2018.
Those comments from the minister, Abdul Qadir, were among the most specific public projections of a timeline for the American commitment in Iraq by officials in either Washington or Baghdad. And they suggested a longer commitment than either government had previously indicated.
Pentagon officials expressed no surprise at Qadir’s projections, which were even less optimistic than those he made last year.
President Bush has never given a date for a military withdrawal from Iraq but has repeatedly said that American forces would stand down as Iraqi forces stand up. Given Qadir’s assessment of Iraq’s military capabilities yesterday, such a withdrawal appeared to be quite distant, and further away than any American officials have previously stated in public.
Qadir’s comments are likely to become a factor in political debate over the war. All of the Democratic presidential candidates have promised a swift American withdrawal, while the leading Republican candidates have generally supported Bush’s plan. Now that rough dates have been attached to his formula, they will certainly come under scrutiny from both sides.
Senior Pentagon and military officials said Qadir had been consistent throughout his weeklong visit in pressing that timeline, and also in laying out requests for purchasing new weapons through Washington’s program of foreign military sales.
“According to our calculations and our timelines, we think that from the first quarter of 2009 until 2012 we will be able to take full control of the internal affairs of the country,” Qadir said in an interview on Monday conducted in Arabic through an interpreter.
“In regard to the borders, regarding protection from any external threats, our calculation appears that we are not going to be able to answer to any external threats until 2018 to 2020,” he added.
He offered no specifics on a timeline for reducing the number of American troops in Iraq.
His statements were slightly less optimistic than what he told an independent U.S. commission examining the progress of Iraqi security forces last year, according to the September report of the commission, headed by a former NATO commander, Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who is retired. Then Qadir said he expected Iraq would be able to fully defend its borders by 2018.
Qadir was in the United States to discuss the two nations’ long-term military relationship, starting with how to build the new Iraqi armed forces from the ground up over the next decade and beyond, with American assistance.
The United States and Iraq announced in November that they would negotiate formal agreements on that relationship, including the legal status of American military forces remaining in Iraq and an array of measures for cooperation in the diplomatic and economic arenas.
Negotiations have yet to begin in earnest, but both countries have begun sketching their goals, and Qadir’s visit certainly is part of measures by the Iraqi government to lay the foundation for those talks, which are to be completed by July.
“This trip is indicative of where we are in our military relationship with Iraq,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “We are transitioning from crisis mode, from dealing with day-to-day battlefield decisions, to a long-term strategic relationship.”
Morrell said the goal was to end a period in which Iraq has been a military dependent and build a relationship with Iraq as “a more traditional military partner.”
Meanwhile, Qadir sketched out a shopping list that included ground vehicles and helicopters, as well as tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers. Those, he said, are needed as Iraq moves toward taking full responsibility for internal security.
In the years after that, as his nation assumes full control over its defense against foreign threats, Iraq will need additional aircraft, both warplanes and reconnaissance vehicles, he said.