Sunday, April 10, 2011

Extension Of U.S. Troop Presence In Iraq Likely To Be Last Minute If At All

Sec. of Def. Gates disembarking from a plane in Kurdistan (AP)
On April 7, 2011 Defense Secretary Robert Gates landed in Baghdad for a three day tour of the country. The purpose of his visit was to pressure Baghdad into making a decision on whether it wanted American troops to stay past the deadline set in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Under the SOFA, all U.S. forces are to be out by the end of the year. Both Iraqi and U.S. officials have said that a continued presence is necessary to help with national defense, but the political situation in Iraq is not favorable at this time to make such a request. If Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki does ask for American forces to stay, it will likely come at the last minute or it may not come at all.

While in Iraq Secretary Gates traveled to Baghdad, Mosul, and Kurdistan to talk with the nation’s top leaders. He met with Prime Minister Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq from Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani who represent the ruling parties in Kurdistan. Gates wanted to press Iraq’s leaders to consider an extension of the SOFA agreement. Currently there are around 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi officials have speculated that 10,000-20,000 might be asked to stay. Their main duties would be to continue with the training of the Iraqi military, helping with logistics, providing air defense, and protecting a hugely expanded civilian diplomatic staff. Baghdad would have to make the first move to make this happen. Gates warned that this needed to happen sooner rather than later as Washington has large commitments in other parts of the world. More importantly, the U.S. commander in Iraq General Lloyd Austin said that with American soldiers already on their way out, there would be a point where it would be more costly and difficult to send them back in after they had left. The U.S. is going to step up its pull out this summer, which is only a few months away. As that date approaches, Washington is stepping up its pressure on Baghdad to make a decision.

Previously, Iraqi officials have said that they would welcome an extended U.S. presence. At the beginning of 2010 Maliki allegedly asked the cabinet to extend the SOFA, but it rejected the proposal saying that only parliament had that power. In August the Iraqi military’s Chief of Staff General Babaker Zebari told the press that the U.S. needed to stay until 2020 when the security forces would be ready to defend the country from external threats. The next month the Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Obeidi made a similar statement, that Iraq needed U.S. military support indefinitely, and that the U.S. Air Force should stay until at least 2020. That is the year the Iraqi security ministries have set as the time when they will be fully equipped and ready to defend against another country. The problem is that politics may get in the way of Iraq’s security needs.

Iraq’s government is still not set, and Prime Minister Maliki is attempting to play a delicate game with his opponents. The SOFA is caught up in this process. For that reason, Maliki has given several interviews where he said U.S. forces are not necessary after 2011, and that he would not change the SOFA. He repeated that position in a statement while Gates was in the country. Members of the premier’s State of Law have also said that parliament would have to approve any troop extension, and that was not likely. The Sadrists have been the most vocal opponents of any such move. On April 9, they staged a protest in Baghdad against the U.S., and warned that the Mahdi Army might be reformed if the occupation continued past 2011. That same day hundreds marched in Mosul against U.S. forces. That city is the base for the Al-Hadbaa party, an important component of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement, a member of which told AK News that American troops were no longer needed. To complicate the matter, the deep divisions amongst Iraq’s parties have delayed the naming of any security ministers, so the U.S. has no negotiating partners to even make preliminary planning with for changes in the SOFA. If Maliki were to ask for U.S. troops to stay it would give ammunition to his opponents to attack him and his nationalist credentials by calling him an American puppet, dependent upon foreign support to remain in power. That was a charge already made in the demonstrations on April 9. That means the premier has to play hardball with the issue and reject U.S. help, even if he might actually know that it is needed.

Anti-American demonstration by Sadrists, Baghdad, 4/9/11 (Reuters)
Anti-American rally in Mosul, 4/9/11
The decision to keep U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011 will not be made by the country’s military that thinks its necessary, but by the nation’s politicians. The problem is that it comes at a time when the political parties are deeply divided, and still fighting over which parts of the new government they will control. Maliki is attempting to solidify his position, and has so far successfully outmaneuvered his opponents. Asking for American troops to stay would give his critics a new issue to attack him with, and possibly cost him popular support as well. For that reason, he is putting off the issue. If he does decide to act, it’s likely to be at the last minute, right before the end of the year, which will make the negotiations over changing the SOFA all the more complicated. Unfortunately, that’s the way Iraq works as politicians love brinkmanship. Baghdad may in fact, never make any request of Washington, and U.S. forces may be relegated to just a few hundred advisers that work out of the embassy as exists in other countries in the region. In the end, the situation between Maliki’s State of Law and the other lists will probably determine how this whole matter plays out.


AK News, “Update: Hundreds protest the presence of US forces in Iraq,” 4/9/11

Alsumaria, “Iraq government rejects US extended presence,” 4/8/11

Dagher, Sam, “Iraq Wants the U.S. Out,” Wall Street Journal, 12/28/10

Healy, Jack and Schmidt, Michael, “Iraqi Delay Hinders U.S. Planning,” New York Times, 3/15/11

Hodge, Nathan, “Gates Presses Iraq to Decide on Extension of U.S. Presence,” Wall Street Journal, 4/8/11

Landler, Mark, “Report Lists Perils for Envoys After U.S. Leaves Iraq,” New York Times, 1/31/11

Mohammed, Muhanad, “Iraqi cleric issues new warning against U.S. troops,” Reuters, 4/9/11

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraqi Deputy Says U.S. Wants To Maintain Troop Presence,” 4/8/11

Razzouk, Nayla, “U.S. Troops No Longer Needed in Iraq After 2011, Al-Maliki Says,” Bloomberg, 11/27/10

Ryan, Missy, “U.S. pushes Iraq to decide on troop extension,” Reuters, 4/7/11

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