Teaching Iraqi Army mortar skills
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Staff Sgt. Ricardo Mendoza, noncommissioned officer in charge for a 81 mm mortar system assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, helps an Iraqi soldier a... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Training in Iraq
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Sgt. Ryan Fox (left), with Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, assists Iraqi Army soldiers assigned to 8th Iraqi army Brigade, 1st Division, as the soldiers practice Military Ope... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2011 -- Iraq has the most capable counterinsurgency force in the Middle East and Central Asia, but its military still has a long way to go to defend the Iraqi people, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Iraq said here today.

Iraq has a very capable army and growing air force and navy capabilities, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said in an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.

In 2003, there were no Iraqi security forces.

"The size has increased from zero to 650,000 now," Buchanan said. "They are equipped with very modern equipment, and they are training themselves."

The Iraqis have the security lead in operations throughout the country, he said, and, by any measure, they are doing the job. The number of attacks per day and the number of casualties have decreased since the Iraqis took control.

American forces still provide some capabilities, he noted, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and they help with logistics and air support. Still, the Iraqis are developing those capabilities as well.

"This has been the fastest-growing military, with the highest [operations tempo] in the world for the last eight years," Buchanan said. "By necessity, they have been focused almost entirely on internal threats -- fighting terrorism, fighting insurgents."

But a security force has to do more than defend against internal threats, Buchanan noted. It must defend the country from external enemies and defend the nation's sovereignty.

"Only in the last two years has the Iraqi military looked at external threats," he said. Iran shares a long border with Iraq, and Syria is another center of instability.

The Iraqi army is developing a force to defend the nation. Iraq now has 135 of 140 M-1 tanks.

"Those tanks are on hand in Iraq, the crews are getting training, and they are getting some capability," Buchanan said. The Iraqi army now also has 24 self-propelled 155 mm howitzers and 80 155 mm towed howitzers.

"But their ability to integrate the effects of artillery, armor, attack aviation with infantry against a conventional force is really at the beginning stages," he noted. "This will take them some years to develop."

Other aspects will take even more time, the general noted. The new Iraqi military has had seven years to develop a professional noncommissioned officer, or NCO, corps.

"They have some great junior NCOs," Buchanan said. Still, he added, it will take more time to develop those outstanding young NCOs into senior, battle-tested NCO leaders.

The United States is on track to leave Iraq by the end of the year, Buchanan said. Iraq and the United States signed a bilateral security agreement in 2008, and one of the articles of that agreement calls for the U.S. presence to transition completely to a civilian-led authority by the end of 2011.

"This means that our troops would withdraw completely and USF-I would fold its flag," the general said.

At the same time, the United States and Iraq signed the Security Framework agreement, which charts a long-term, enduring partnership between the two countries. This covers everything from education, science and technology, to cultural exchanges, to defense and security cooperation. All this would fall under the control of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Iraq has signaled an intention to discuss keeping some American force in the country after the Dec. 31 withdrawal date. Iraqi military leaders are discussing their vulnerabilities and what they would need to fill the gaps.

Iraqi national leaders have pledged to begin discussing the process to request U.S. aid.

"On the military side we provide options up the chain so our civilian leaders can make the decisions," Buchanan said. "The Iraqi government's assessment of its own vulnerabilities mirrors ours."

The gaps include little ability to integrate combined arms against conventional threats or external threats, little capability to defend Iraqi airspace, and maritime security shortcomings.

The United States can provide some of those capabilities, but the Iraqi government has to ask, Buchanan said.

"The longer it takes, the more expensive and harder it is to accomplish," he noted.

The U.S. mission hasn't changed since Operation New Dawn began in September 2010: advise, train and assist Iraqi security forces; conduct partnered counterterrorism operations; and support and protect the civilian members of the U.S. mission in Iraq as they work to build civil capacity throughout the country.

Just more than four months are left for Operation New Dawn, and more of the U.S. effort will be focused on transitioning bases, redeploying equipment and re-posturing personnel. Progress has been going for some time. The United States had 505 bases in Iraq in 2008, and at the start of Operation New Dawn the number was down to 92. Today, there are 47.

U.S. forces in Iraq are ready to do what is necessary, Buchanan said. The effort has been worth it, he added.

"The Iraqi people have made a number of sacrifices over the years," he said. "They are building a set of values that didn't exist there before. As it grows and matures, Iraq's government will be better able to deliver what the people need -- a country that is stable, that is sovereign and self-reliant. It's good for the people of Iraq, it's good for the region, and it would be good for the United States as well."

Related Links:

Army.mil: Middle East News

STAND-TO!: Operation New Dawn

U.S. Forces - Iraq on Facebook

U.S. Forces - Iraq