The Iraqi army was supposed to pull out of the nation's cities by the end of this year but is delaying the pullback over security concerns, the Iraqi military spokesman said Saturday.
The delay is an acknowledgment that even after four years of declining violence, Iraq's police force is not capable of maintaining security on its own. The other worry is that violence will increase when American troops complete their own withdrawal from the country at year's end.
The government's plan remains to eventually hand over security to the police and pull Iraqi troops back to bases outside the cities. But the spokesman for the Baghdad military operations command, Qassim al-Moussawi, said Saturday that the military is worried that the police will not be able to handle security in all areas of the country.
"We started to hand over gradually in some areas. But other areas we can't hand over to the police because still the Interior Ministry needs the support of the Iraqi army. It is not capable now nor by the end of 2011."
The Iraqi army's presence can be felt all over Iraq's quasi-militarized cities, where soldiers in helmets and flak vests and carrying AK-47's man checkpoints and drive around in Humvees. The army has received the bulk of the training and support from the U.S. military and is generally seen as more competent than the police.
The police, since they tend to work and live in the same areas, have had problems with infiltration by various militant factions and are perceived as less willing to go after lawbreakers.
"We are monitoring the situation to see when police have the capability to maintain the security in order to hand over the responsibility to them," al-Moussawi said.
Al-Moussawi said there were concerns that if the Iraqi army pulled out of the cities, violence would return.
According to the 2008 agreement signed between the U.S. and Iraq, all American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of this year. The American government will still keep a sizable presence in Iraq where it has its largest embassy in the world plus offices in Irbil, Kirkuk and Basra.
Iraqi political leaders have said they would like to have American military training help, but negotiations between the two sides are stuck on what type of legal protection to give any American troops who remain behind.
Even if a contingent of American forces were to stay behind, they would likely have a very limited role that would not extend much to combat operations, meaning the job of protecting the country against both Sunni and Shiite militias would rest solely with the Iraqis.