U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. Air Force will likely continue to have a role in Iraq after all U.S. troops are currently scheduled to leave at the end of 2011, under a U.S.-Iraqi agreement signed last year. Gates spoke to U.S. troops at Forward Operating Base Warrior, near Kirkuk, northern Iraq.
U.S. officials say they are on track to end the U.S. ground combat role and reduce from 120,000 troops to 50,000 by next October, and to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But Secretary Gates said that might not include the U.S. Air Force.
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continues a train, equip and advise role beyond the end of 2011. They realize that they're probably not going to be ready," he said.
Gates was answering a question from a member of the U.S. Air Force during a 45-minute Town Hall-style meeting with several hundred troops at this base near Kirkuk. He came here from Baghdad, where he met early Friday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"I talked to the prime minister this morning about their equipment purchases, training and so on as they look at 2012 and beyond, and they clearly have some concerns," he said.
Secretary Gates said there has been no agreement to keep Air Force units in Iraq beyond 2011, nor even any formal discussion. But he indicated that while the Iraqi Army and Police are taking more and more responsibility for security around the country, Iraq's air capability lags well behind.
Gates also predicted that the U.S. Air Force will have a long-term role in Afghanistan, beyond the five years or more that allied ground forces are expected to be operating there.