US army may not help in future Iraq crises
Baghdad - Iraqi leaders should not expect US forces to return to help in a crisis once they leave at the end of the year, a senior American military official said on Wednesday.
The remarks came just days after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates ended a visit to Iraq during which he urged the country's leaders to assess if they wanted any US troops to remain beyond 2011.
All American forces must leave Iraq by the end of the year under a bilateral security pact.
An official said: "If we left - and this is the health warning we would give to anybody - be careful about assuming that we will come running back to put out the fire if we don't have an agreement.
"It's hard to do that," he told reporters at the Al-Faw Palace in the US military's Camp Victory base on Baghdad's outskirts.
Gates, and Pentagon officials who were part of his delegation, insisted that Iraqi leaders should consider asking some US forces to stay on, primarily to train Iraqi troops on weapons systems that will be delivered later this year and also to inform them what weapons Baghdad needed to buy to meet external threats.
The official said on Wednesday that Iraqi forces needed training and weapons to combat external threats.
"When we do leave, Iraq will probably have less capability in terms of military hardware than any of its neighbours," the official said.
He said the capability "will be there in the future, once they have the opportunity to buy more stuff and train on that stuff. But they won't be as strong as some people think that Iraq will be at the end of this year," he added.
Iraq's military forces were largely destroyed during the US-led invasion of 2003 and were immediately disbanded after now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled.
"While there is no looming threat today, certainly you want to keep as much of a balance as possible" with neighbouring countries, he said.
"Any time you have an imbalance in capability, the possibility that a threat will emerge is always there."
He said the United States was committed to a long-term relationship with Iraq.
Iraq has taken delivery of some M1A1 tanks and other US weaponry
In February, however, the government postponed a purchase of 18 F-16 fighters, saying the $900m earmarked for the deal would go to feed the poor, amid growing protests that have swept the Arab world.
Nearly 50 000 troops still remain in Iraq, but are due to pull out completely by the end of the year.