BAGHDAD – Iraq's budget shortfall due to low oil prices presents a challenge to building up the country's army and raises questions about whether it will be able to protect itself when U.S. troops leave, a top American commander said Wednesday.
Iraq's security plans have been derailed because of the drop in oil prices, hampering efforts to buy ships, planes and weapons and slowing down the construction of the necessary national supply chain.
"The budget, no question, is a challenge," Army Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, head of the U.S. training command in Iraq, told reporters Wednesday in Baghdad. "This is a significant challenge for the security ministers as they try to secure weapons systems as well as ensure the flow of personnel."
With a looming deadline for American troops to pull out of Iraq by 2012 under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, the clock is ticking on U.S. training efforts.
President Barack Obama has ordered all combat troops out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving up to 50,000 troops to train and advise until the end of 2011.
Helmick avoided directly answering whether Iraq would have an air force to patrol its skies or a navy to protect its oil exporting facilities by the withdrawal deadline.
"Our goal is to do the absolute best we can in the time that we have remaining to provide a basic level of security for this country," he said.
The comments came a day after Iraq's Deputy Finance Minister Fadhil Othman said the proposed 2010 budget was 20 percent higher than the current one, but still fell short of the country's funding needs.
The Iraqi government had to cut its 2009 budget twice from $79 billion to $58.6 billion as oil prices plummeted from a high of nearly $150 per barrel. The final 2009 budget figure was based on an average oil price of $50 per barrel.
Crude prices have since rebounded to around $66 per barrel, and the 2010 budget is based on an average price of $60.
The Iraqi government relies on oil sales for more than 90 percent of its revenue and Iraqi officials have been trying to attract multinational oil companies to invest in the country.
This year's budget constraints forced Iraqi defense officials to impose a hiring freeze and limit its military spending. Iraq has still not purchased the navy ships and patrol planes it requires.
Helmick, who was holding his last news conference as commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, said he was frustrated by the pace of the training.
"Given the security agreement and given that we have to leave here in December 2011, we are now compressed with the things that we need to do prior to our departure with our Iraqi security forces," Helmick said.
The decrease in violence in Iraq, from a high of 1,600 attacks in 2007 a week to less than 200 a week now, has allowed Iraq to step up training of its security forces.
Helmick said by the time the last U.S. troops leave Iraq, the country will have a security force that can protect itself on the ground.
But there is much work still to be done. Iraq's army needs logistics help, the security ministries need help with strategic planning and the navy and air force need additional time to provide adequate security, he added.
Helmick's assessment came as The Associated Press obtained a planned statement by Army Gen. Ray Odierno to the House Armed services Committee that announced the early withdrawal of more than 4,000 troops next month from Iraq.