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It will be at least a decade before Iraqi security forces won’t need the backing of American troops, Iraq’s defense minister predicted this week.

In an interview with the New York Times, Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said Iraqi forces would be able handle domestic security by 2012 but would not be fully prepared to defend against an external threat until at least 2018.

Al-Obeidi’s comments represent the most specific assessment of the future of the American presence in Iraq to come from either Washington or Baghdad, though various officials have made varying pronouncements in recent weeks.

“According to our calculations and our timelines, we think that from the first quarter of 2009 until 2012 we will be able to take full control of the internal affairs of the country,” al-Obeidi said in the Monday interview.

“In regard to the borders, regarding protection from any external threats, our calculation appears that we are not going to be able to answer to any external threats until 2018 to 2020,” al-Obeidi said.

Al-Obeidi was meeting with officials in Washington, discussing how to build Iraqi forces over the next decade. The Times reported that al-Obeidi “sketched out a shopping list that included ground vehicles and helicopters, as well as tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers.”

Al-Obeidi is a career armor officer who led the Iraqi who fought alongside the U.S. Marines in Fallujah in 2004.

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed an agreement in November laying out the general framework of a potential long-term American presence, but left the specifics — including troop strengths and locations — open to future negotiations.

Al-Maliki previously has offered somewhat rosier assessments of his government’s ability to take over security. In January 2007, he said American troop levels could be reduced “dramatically” in three to six months if training of Iraqi forces were accelerated.

About 30,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to rotate out of Iraq by July. That is roughly the same number as were added to U.S. force levels as part of last year’s “surge” and would leave some 130,000 American troops in Iraq.

American commanders say the reduction is possible because of improved security but warn that the gains remain fragile.

During a visit to the Middle East last week, Bush said it was “fine with me” if American commanders do not recommend any further troop reductions.

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