|Sec. of Def. Gates disembarking from a plane in Kurdistan (AP)|
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|
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