Middle East

Al-Qaeda, Iran-backed groups key threats to Iraq: U.S. official

BEIRUT: Almost 10 weeks ahead of a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq after an eight-year presence, Al-Qaeda and Iran-backed military groups represent the two main threats faced by the volatile Middle East country, according to the U.S. military spokesperson in Iraq.

“I think that the current security threats could be divided into [several] groups the primary one is terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and Iran –backed militant groups; there is [also] a threat for the security situation organized around crime,” Major General Jeffrey Buchanan told The Daily Star in a telephone interview Friday.

He did not rule out a spike in attacks on his troops in light of the sharp increase of tension with Iran this week, adding that Al-Qaeda was not entirely defeated in Iraq.

Buchanan said that the United States has anticipated that attacks from Iran-backed groups would increase this year and argued that a lot of it is driven by a desire to claim credit for U.S. forces leaving Iraq.

“Those attacks have nothing to do with us leaving Iraq we signed a bilateral security agreement with Iraq in 2008 and we are going to honor our commitment to the Iraqi people and to the U.S. people and withdraw at the end of the year,” Buchanan said.

He added that over the years Iran’s strategy has been shaped by the idea to keep Iraq weak and isolated.

“That isolation has been driven not to keep Iraq isolated from the United States but also from all of the regional neighbors,” Buchanan said.

However, the spokesperson highlighted that threats posed by Iran-backed militant troops and those by Al-Qaeda should be treated differently.

“Al-Qaeda is still dangerous and they have not been defeated and I think it’s going to take consistent pressure on the part of the Iraqi security forces to complete their defeat,” said Buchanan.

He explained that unlike Al-Qaeda, which is universally shunned in Iraq, Iran-backed militant groups have external sponsors and are going to remain in Iraq “long after the troops leave.”

According to Buchanan the issue that can diminish the security threat of groups sponsored by Tehran is political dialogue between Iraq and Iran.

As for the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to handle internal as well as external threats, Buchanan described their performance over the past year as “incredible” but added that he did not wish to paint “a false picture because the [Iraqi] people don’t yet have the security they actually deserve.”

Buchanan said while the ISF were moving in the right direction, they were going to continue to need help with respect to developing their intelligence capability and their ability to sustain their forces.

“The ISF have the capacity of defeating Al-Qaeda but this is not something that is going to be done in a matter of days or weeks it’s going to take long term consorted effort putting pressure on all parts of Al-Qaeda networks in Iraq,” he added.

Buchanan said that the development of Iraq’ intelligence apparatuses will also limit the amount of foreign fighters that come across the country’s border, although he said that the past year has seen a reduction in those fighters coming across.

Buchanan admits that the ISF is not yet ready to counter any external threats, saying the they were at the beginning of developing the capabilities that they need .

“They don’t yet have the forces to fully meet all of their external defense requirements and the other two weaknesses that I mentioned the intelligence and logistical support certainly affect the external defense requirements as well,” he said.

However, in order to refine the ISF’s skills in facing external challenges, Buchanan advises the Iraqi government to develop a more capable navy able to defend Iraq’s territorial water, and to defend its actual oil export capacity as well as start working toward getting finer aircrafts to defend the country’s airspace As stipulated by the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, the U.S. military has ended combat operations since September 2010 and has been operating as advisors and trainers, assisting Iraqi security forces.

U.S. training to the ISF is likely to continue even after the withdrawal of troops but under the auspices of the American Embassy in Baghdad and its Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, which according to embassy spokesperson Chris Henseman will be responsible to deliver equipment to the Iraqi military and ensure technical training of forces.

Hensman added that the U.S, and in accordance with the Strategic Framework Agreement of 2008, which has outlined the partnership between Iraq and the U.S, in various fields including security and defense, has committed to provide training for Iraqi military and police personnel in the U.S and an array of other programs.

Baghdad and Washington are still negotiating how many troops will remain beyond Dec. 31 to provide training and whether these will enjoy some sort of immunity, an option many Iraqi groups are not in favor of.

Buchanan said his country has been very forthright about requirements for legal protection, adding those are not immunity for military forces like the one diplomats enjoy.

“We always negotiate a bilateral agreement with the countries in which we operate about the specifics of how we work the jurisdictional issues of the troops,” he said.

Separately, Both Buchanan and Hensman believe that Iraq now has more opportunities than it used to before 2003.

Hensman said the political situation continues to improve, politicians continue to work out solutions and have a healthy debate.

“Iraqis are working through a political process and that would help them work out future challenges that they might face,” he said.

Buchanan, for his part said the U.S. sought to maintain a strong relationship with Iraq based on mutual respect between the two countries

“Iraq has the opportunity to leave isolation it was caught in for so many years and rejoin the region,” he said, hoping that Iraq would make a positive contribution to the region with respect to stability, economic development, security and the development of democracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2011, on page 1.




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