by Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (Xinhua) -- While the United States is scheduled to pull its combat troops from Iraq by month's end, some have voiced concern that Iraqi forces may not be ready to take over security for years to come.
The latest phase of the U.S. drawdown is expected to leave behind 50,000 troops who will play a non-combat role, with a final withdrawal slated for the end of next year.
Since taking office last year, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to pull out of Iraq, beginning the process last summer with a withdrawal from Iraqi cities.
"We are on target to complete our drawdown by the end of August. Already we have removed over 80,000 troops from Iraq since President Obama took office," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday.
"(U.S. commander in Iraq) General Odierno also reported that the security situation has retained the significant improvements made over the last couple of years and that the Iraqi security forces are fully prepared to be in the lead when we end our combat mission later this month," Gibbs said.
But many fear that the immature Iraqi forces may not be capable of securing the war-battered country, which was plagued by frequent militant attacks even when the bulk of U.S. troops were present.
Nathan Hughes, director of military analysis at global intelligence company Stratfor, said although Iraqi forces have made improvements over the last two years, they have done so in a fairly permissive security environment, compared to the one before the power sharing agreement was put in place in Baghdad.
"This has all taken place with an enormous number of troops in the country," he said.
But the balance of power between Iraq's sectarian factions is fragile, and if it unravels, Iraqi security forces will not be effective, he said.
"So the real question is can a new government take hold in Baghdad? Can an equitable power sharing agreement that is acceptable to all sectarian groups be worked out?" he said.
"If so, the Iraqi security forces may be able to do their thing. But without the political understanding, without the ethno-sectarian understanding, the Iraqi forces are not going to be able to impose security on the country," he said.
Some fret that ongoing disagreement between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and rival Iyad Allawi could continue to slow the formation of a new government.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is actively involved in talks on forming an Iraqi government and the issue remains a priority for the Obama administration, Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday.
Though Iraqi security forces have made improvements in recent years, Iraq's chief military officer Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari told AFP on Wednesday that they will need U.S. support for another decade.
"At this point, the withdrawal (of U.S. forces) is going well, because they are still here," Zebari said, referring to the lingering of 50,000 U.S. non-combat troops.
"But the problem will start after 2011; the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011, because the army will be fully ready in 2020," he said.
"If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020," he said.
Gibbs said on Wednesday he was unaware of any concerns over the 2011 deadline for withdrawal, adding that such a discussion might be "premature."
Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper reported that al-Qaida is trying to recruit former Sunni fighters who joined U.S. forces in 2006. The Iraqi government has allegedly failed to protect their leaders and not paid them on time, and al-Qaida is supposedly offering more money.
Some experts, however, believe the mere promise of extra cash will not be enough to draw recruits to al-Qaida's extremist ideology.