Iraq general says army not ready for US pullout

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The Iraqi army will not be able to ensure the country's security until 2020 and the United States should keep troops in Iraq until then, Iraq's most senior officer has been quoted as saying.

Lt Gen Babakir Zebari told a defence conference in Baghdad that the Iraqi army would be unable to cope without backing from US forces, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported today.

Under the Obama administration's plans, US forces are due to start withdrawing from Iraq at the end of August, apart from 50,000 troops who will support and train Iraqi forces before leaving the country by the end of 2011.

"At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because they are still here," Zebari was quoted as saying. "But the problem will start after 2011 - the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011."

"If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020."

Violence in Iraq has fallen since the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-2007, but the number of violent civilian deaths, from daily bombings, shootings and other attacks, rose sharply in July.

US officials have said they expect violence to worsen as al Qa'ida insurgents exploit the failure of political factions to agree on a new government after a parliamentary election in March.

In Washington, US officials gave a positive assessment of the situation in Iraq on yesterday, emphasising the growing capability of Iraq's security forces.