Rep. Smith: Iraq 'highly likely' to ask U.S. troops to remain

Iraqi officials likely will request thousands of U.S. troops remain in that country into next year to provide security and train indigenous forces, a senior lawmaker said Thursday.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he expects most House Democrats to be “amenable” to such an arrangement, which would require a revised U.S.-Iraqi security pact.

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“I think they will make the ask,” Smith told reporters during a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Center for Media and Security. He called such a request “highly likely.”

Under the current agreement between Baghdad and Washington, virtually all American military forces are set to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

But some defense officials, experts and lawmakers are questioning whether the progress made on security there in recent years can be maintained once U.S. troops are gone.

Smith said it remains unclear how many American troops will be kept in Iraq into 2012, but he said “it will be less than 25,000 — it will be a fairly low number.”

House Democrats would oppose a revised security agreement if it contained troop levels of that size, he told reporters.

“We need a fairly significant drawdown there in January 2012,” Smith said.

U.S. forces have made progress in creating stability in Iraq, Smith said, but “the question is: Is that sustainable? I worry about that a great deal.”

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said U.S. officials are still working to remove forces by Dec. 31 and "transition to a more typical military-to-military relationship." Even after its troops are withdrawn, Washington must continue efforts to help Iraqi security forces prepare to fight external threats, meaning providing U.S. equipment transfers and sales, as well training.

For the most part, Gates said, "the Iraqis want us out as quickly as possible."

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) noted the administration's 2012 budget request seeks "significant funds for starting up [an] Office of Security Cooperation within the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to make our security assistance available to Iraq."

In the meantime, Smith said there are no major issues of disagreement with House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). But he added that he expects conflicts from time to time, especially when panel Republicans disagree with the Obama administration.

Asked later if he feels one of his duties is to defend administration policies, Smith replied no. But said he he does agree with the White House’s defense and national security agenda, meaning he anticipates siding with President Obama frequently.

Smith laid the following top priorities for his run as Armed Services ranking member:

On the defense budget: “We need to re-examine where we’re spending money” within the Pentagon’s budget, he said. With the nation’s finances looking bleak, Smith reiterated his view that DoD spending can be reduced.

On Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iraq: Committee Democrats will continue “keeping a close eye” on plans for each theater, Smith said. He later added that he disagrees with other lawmakers who want to zero all foreign aid to those and other countries. Smith said Washington should prefer giving Afghanistan “economic assistance” to help it continue to build a stable nation instead of “spending billions” to again drive out al Qaeda if they were to regain a foothold there.

On detainee policies: Calling the current policy for holding terrorist suspects “muddled,” Smith said Congress and the White House need to find common ground on their now-disparate policy goals.