Iraqi troops can take over: PM Maliki to Mullen

Discussions intensify over whether to keep US forces in Iraq past this year.

Updated: Apr 22, 2011, 15:56 PM IST

Baghdad: Iraq`s Prime Minister has told the top US military officer that Iraqi forces are able to maintain security in their own country, as discussions intensify over whether to keep any US forces in Iraq past this year.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the remark during a late Thursday meeting with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff.

Mullen`s visit comes as US and Iraqi officials are trying to decide what, if any, US troop presence should remain in Iraq after the end of this year.

An agreement between both countries stipulates that all American forces are to leave by December 31.

"The military and the security forces have become able to take the responsibility, to maintain the security and to work with professionalism and patriotism. We will continue to enhance our combat abilities and capabilities while equipping (forces) with the latest weapons and equipment," the Premier told Mullen, according to a statement released on the Prime Minister`s website.

US officials have said repeatedly that they would consider having American forces in Iraq past the year-end date but only if the Iraqis asked. Privately, many Iraqi officials say they are worried about what will happen in Iraq after the US withdrawals but publicly they maintain that all American forces will leave as scheduled.

Asking American forces to stay past 2011 would be politically risky for al-Maliki, whose closest allies in government are the virulently anti-American followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shi’ite cleric, who spends much of his time in neighbouring Iran, has threatened violence if American troops stay in Iraq.

But military officials say Iraq still needs assistance protecting its airspace and with intelligence gathering.

In his statement, al-Maliki emphasised that he would like to continue cooperation with the US in the fields of training and armaments.

Mullen`s visit comes on the heels of earlier trips by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Chief of Staff of the Army General Martin Dempsey.

Bureau Report