|Iraqi forces are in control of security in 13 of 18 provinces [EPA]|
Mohammad al-Askari is a senior figure in the Iraqi army and a military adviser to Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister.
He says the Iraqi army will become the focus of national efforts to reduce violence, eradicate “terrorist” organisations and fill the security role once US forces withdraw from Iraq by 2011.
In a phone interview from his office in Baghdad, al-Askari told Al Jazeera that some obstacles still remain as the army pursued full combat readiness.
Al Jazeera: How would you describe the security situation in Iraq six years after the US-led invasion?
Al-Askari: In Baghdad, there are still breaches of security that take place. However, according to our studies and statistics which we have gathered, the security situation in the capital has improved tremendously.
The only threat facing Iraqis today are the suicide bomber and the improvised explosive device since we have eliminated all others. These were precisely the tactics deployed in the recent spate of attacks we witnessed in Baghdad.
In the past, al-Qaeda and other organisations used to control entire villages and provinces; now, they are nowhere to be found. The attacks that continue are only sporadic and do not represent a degradation in the overall sense of security.
The situation is definitely improving, and there are remedies in place. The majority of provinces enjoy enjoy general safety. Admittedly, there is much work to do in provinces like Diyala (northeast of Baghdad), where terrorist elements are still active.
Is there a particular plan that the Iraqi army will follow as it begins to take on the roles and responsibilities the US military currently has?
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The deadlines that were agreed in the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) between Iraq and the US were reached after extensive consultations between all the relevant ministries in the country. There was a need to gauge the ability and level of preparedness for all security agencies in Iraq.
The first stage, set for the end of June 2009, will see the withdrawal of foreign troops from all major urban centres. This decision was based on our confidence to assume control in 13 out of the 18 provinces.
The second date, which will see the withdrawal of all US troops by 2011, is based on our confidence that we will be able to control the entire country, without any US assistance. There is a comprehensive withdrawal strategy that has been endorsed by all levels of government.
The military is working hard to reach a readiness level of “one”. We are currently at level “two,” and just need some more air force and naval preparations to achieve our goals by 2011.
Currently, there are soldiers and officers that are being trained inside and outside Iraq, in addition to considerable weapons contracts that are waiting to be completed. This plan has been in the works for a long time.
Which countries will Iraq be purchasing weapons from?
First of all, let me say that Iraq is free to purchase weapons without any involvement or direction from any country, including the US. This is a sovereign nation taking its own decisions. Therefore, we are dealing with all friendly nations, particularly those that are cooperating with us on preparing our armed forces.
These nations include Serbia, or the former Yugoslavia, a country that the former Iraqi regime previously purchased arms from. There are also Romania, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom and France in Europe.
In Asia, we are purchasing weapons from South Korea, China, and Japan. We are also dealing with Arab countries as well, such as Egypt.
There are three criteria that we use when making a decision on arms purchases. They are the quality of manufacturing, the price, and most importantly, the time of delivery. We want to make sure that the weapons can be delivered in a timely fashion to ensure that we are ready by 2011.
What role have Iraqi tribes played in preparing the Iraqi army?
To be honest, the factors behind the improvement of security in Iraq can’t only be credited to the work of law enforcement agencies and military personnel. It is also as a result of the stances taken by tribal leaders in all provinces, and is also due to all the people of Iraq that have supported the army.
In particular, the unveiling of the withdrawal timetable made Iraqis realise that their military was going to emerge as a national force to fill the void created by the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Iraqi tribes have played an honourable role that has included encouraging all their sons to volunteer for the army and the police. They are truly patriotic and have created efforts to combat terrorist elements within the country, and are involved extensively in the reconciliation project by attending conferences in the national legislature.
In that sense, nothing is new because tribes, and their leaders, have always been active participants since the establishment of the Iraqi state.
Media reports have indicated that the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, are a bit wary of the deployment of Iraqi troops in Kurdistan.
In order to successfully prepare our armed forces, there must be close cooperation among all concerned parties in Iraq. The Iraqi army’s right to enter any province was outlined in a constitution that was voted on by all Iraqis, including Arabs and Kurds.
The Iraqi army belongs to all Iraqis, and it is not just an Arab army. It does not consider any ethnicity its enemy. Our Kurdish brothers are well represented in the Iraqi military.
They also occupy some very important positions such as the commander of the Iraqi air force, and head of military intelligence. Therefore, there is no need for concern, and the Iraqi army will assert its right to go anywhere in Iraq, including the Kurdish autonomous regions.
I admit that there have been some misunderstandings that took place in the past. However, through cooperation and dialogue, a clearer image of the Iraqi army has emerged. We will protect all of Iraq’s cities and provinces, including Kurdish ones.
Areas in the north of Iraq, such as Kirkuk, Diyala and Mosul, continue to witness attacks against civilians and clashes between factions. Can the Iraqi army cope with the security situation there or will it require help from the US military?
The nature and length of the US role in the north of the country will be determined by the wishes of the Iraqi government. In Mosul, the security situation has gone from considerable uncertainty to a level of considerable stability after a change in strategies in military and political leadership. In Diyala, there are significant great obstacles to be overcome.
There are still active terrorist elements that need to be fought back. As for Kirkuk, the city does experience a suicide or roadside bombing from time to time, but we are generally confident that the situation will improve there, and all of Iraq’s north.