US officials: Iraq transition 'vital' for Middle East

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WASHINGTON - The transition from a strong US military presence in Iraq to an expanded diplomatic role is "vital" to ensure security in the Middle East, US officials said Wednesday.
With just months to go before US forces must withdraw from Iraq, senior US officials are saying they hope Iraqi leaders will ask for troops to stay, while acknowledging the unpopularity of the American troop presence.
"The formation of a stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq is vital to the emergence of a secure, open and self-determined Middle East," said Patricia Haslach, Iraq transition coordinator at the State Department.
She was testifying with colleagues from the Pentagon and the US Agency for International Development at a House Foreign Affairs panel as popular uprisings roil across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Iraq's neighbor Syria.
The US officials explained that fiscal year 2012 that begins October 1 will see them pursue more political and economic cooperation as US troops withdraw.
"FY 2012 will represent the first year of a normalized security assistance relationship with Iraq," Haslach said in a joint written statement with USAID Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator Christopher Crowley and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
US agencies and office "have undertaken unprecedented levels of coordination and planning for the transition in Iraq," they added.
The subcommittee's chairman, Steve Chabot, cautioned against a speedy withdrawal from Iraq.
"Iraq's recent progress is regrettably as positive as it is precarious," he said.
"There is reason to question Iraq's readiness."
Some 45,000 American troops remain in Iraq, primarily tasked with training and equipping their Iraqi counterparts, although they must all withdraw by the end of the year under the terms of a bilateral security pact.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for a national dialogue to gauge whether they should stay beyond 2011, and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday that he hopes Iraqi leaders will ask US troops to stay beyond the deadline.