NEW YORK – U.S. military forces will remain a key player inside Iraq for years to come, says its ambassador at the United Nations.
Hamid al-Bayati was offering some of the first reaction to President Barack Obama's decision to pull major combat forces out of the embattled nation by August 2010.
"I am not nervous (over the U.S. deadline) because basically Iraqis are in charge of security right now all over Iraq. I don't think that will change in 2010," he said.
In an exclusive interview Friday evening, Bayati explained that while his government is capable of assuming a greater role in ground defense, there is still much work to be done rebuilding the navy and air force.
"We have three C-130s (transport airplanes) – they were gifts from the United States. We now have helicopters, but no jet fighters yet. … We have pilots training to fly jet fighters, but we don't have jet fighters yet."
Bayati explained that rebuilding Iraq's air force would likely be the main concentration for the remaining U.S. forces.
"Yes, I think the air force will be the focus of our defense now," said the ambassador.
With no current Iraqi air defenses to speak of, the U.S. Air Force will be entrusted to protect the skies over Iraq for the foreseeable future. The patrols will in reality be "shotgun" patrols, with American pilots ready to engage in combat if necessary.
It is not a new role for the Pentagon since it took control of Iraq's air space in 1990 when the U.N. Security Council imposed a no-fly zone.
The Iraqi navy is not in much better shape, since it also has yet to function as a credible military body.
Coastal patrols will likely continue to be the responsibility of the US 5th Fleet based in the nearby Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.
Those U.S. sailors are independent of the estimated 50,000 soldiers the Pentagon says will remain after the 2010 deadline.
On the future of U.S.-Iraq military relations, the ambassador likened them to those currently in effect between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
In the desert kingdom, Washington maintains a sizable presence, but mainly confined to several major remote bases – all of which are "ostensibly" commanded by a Saudi military official.
One area left open was the possibility of new local defense alliances in the Gulf to replace departing American forces.
Could Baghdad forge military cooperation pacts with neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia?
On that issue, Bayati was careful:
"It is still too early to talk about having some kind of (local) defense alliances. … Right now we are focusing on rebuilding our own capabilities. ...We inherited the problems of Saddam Hussein with his neighbors. So, it is too early."
Symbolically, Bayati says the Obama declaration on a U.S. forces draw-down will be significant.
The U.S.-British 2003 invasion was notable because the regime of Saddam, which had terrorized its population for more than 25 years, had come to an end. But Iraqis were still not in control of their destiny.
Now, with Obama's Friday announcement, the ambassador says for the first time his nation feels more confident over its own future:
"Iraq is a nation of dignity and Iraqis would love to control their issues by themselves. They would love to see that they could depend on themselves."
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