Maliki tries to soften comments troops can leave ‘any time’

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki sought to soften earlier comments that American troops can leave “any time they want”, saying Monday that Iraq’s security force was on the road to taking over from US troops — but it’s not there yet.The blunt-spoken Maliki told reporters Saturday that he was confident that Iraq’s army and police were capable of maintaining security “if the international forces withdraw any time they want”. Those comments appeared to undermine the White House’s contention that the 155,000 American troops must remain in the country because Iraq’s own security forces were not ready to deal with Sunni and Shiite extremists on their own.

On Monday, however, Maliki rolled back on his forecast, saying instead that he hoped Iraqi forces would receive enough training to be able to take over security duties from the Americans by the end of the year.

“I hope this will be the end of the building of our forces so that we are prepared to take control of security.”

“This needs the cooperation of everyone involved, both us and the coalition forces,” he told NBC News.

“As soon as we reach this level of readiness, the door will be open for dialogue between us and Americans about our future plans. Now we are thinking as politicians about how to maintain robust long-term relations with the Americans whether they remain on Iraqi soil or pull out from Iraq,” he said.

Maliki’s weekend comments likely reflected Iraqi frustration over criticism from the US over his government’s failure to meet any of the 18 benchmark measures which the White House says are necessary for national reconciliation.

Maliki’s assessment of Iraqi military capabilities drew a sharp retort Monday from former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, who said he was “extremely doubtful” that the prime minister will be able to secure the country so that American forces to leave any time soon.

“There is no chance that the Iraqi forces could take over at any time, or certainly by the first of the year,” Hamilton said in a nationally broadcast interview. “All of the support efforts, logistical and medical and so forth, they are not close to being able to meet.” Maliki’s weekend comments likely reflected Iraqi frustration over criticism from the US over the government’s failure to enact any of the 18 benchmark legislation’s which the White House says are necessary for national reconciliation.

Many Iraqi politicians believe the Americans have underestimated the difficulties in enacting the benchmark bills in a parliament riddled with sectarian dissension.

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