Iraqi army not ready to take over until 2020, says country's top general

Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari calls for US army to stay beyond Obama's 2011 deadline for complete withdrawal
Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari of Iraq and Lieutenant General Michael Barbero of the US
Iraq's army chief, Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari, with US counterpart Lieutenant General Michael Barbero at a news conference. Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

The Iraqi army is not ready to take over responsibility from the Americans, its most senior general has warned, as the White House insists the US army is on course to end its combat role in the country by the end of this month.

Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari told a defence conference in Baghdad that the Iraqi army would be unable to cope without backing from US forces.

He suggested the Iraqi army would be incapable of assuming control for another decade.

"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," he said.

This is not the first time Zebari has said Iraq needs the Americans to stay longer, but the timing of his comments makes them significant.

Barack Obama has pledged to hand over military responsibility to the Iraqi government by the end of the August as part of plan to reduce troop levels to 50,000.

Zebari said the reduction in US troop numbers was going well but only because "they are still here". He predicted trouble next year when all the remaining US troops are due to leave. "The problem will start after 2011 – the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011," he said.

Last night the White House said Obama was satisfied that the US could finish its combat role in Iraq safely this month and meet the deadline for removing troops from the country by the end of 2011.

The president was briefed on withdrawal by his national security team and the top US commander in Iraq, Ray Odierno. The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said: "The president heard directly from General Odierno, who said that we were on target to complete our drawdown by the end of August. Already we have removed over 80,000 troops from Iraq since President Obama took office."

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

US officials expect violence to worsen as insurgents exploit the failure of political factions to agree on a new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. This week US-backed militia leaders have said al-Qaida is attempting to make a comeback in Iraq.

"There continues to be terrorists in Iraq. There continues to be acts of violence," the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said. But they had not affected the positive trends in Iraq and the overall level of violence had gone down, he added.

The president received an update from the vice-president, Joe Biden, and Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Iraq, on Iraq's troubled efforts to form a new government.

Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said frustration was building among Iraqis over failure to form a governing coalition. "There is a sense of urgency to move forward and get a government formed," he said. "We really believe there is forward movement. But it's not up to us."