On May 4, 2011, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner said that American troops should stay in Iraq past the December 31 withdrawal deadline. The Speaker had just returned from a trip to Baghdad the month before where he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who mentioned problems with his country’s security forces and intelligence agencies. Boehner’s remarks came after several meetings between Iraqi and American dignitaries as Washington is trying to pressure Iraq into maintaining a U.S. military presence in the country into 2012 and beyond.
The U.S. lobbying effort started in early April 2011. On April 7, Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Baghdad. There he met with Prime Minister Maliki, Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. Gates told the Iraqis that they needed to make a decision about a troop extension. While he was there, a member of Maliki’s State of Law party said that the U.S. wanted to keep between 10,000-20,000 soldiers in the country. A Pentagon spokesman also claimed that Iraqi leaders told the Secretary that they knew Iraq still needed American assistance. Gates’ visit was followed by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizad on April 11, Speaker Boehner and a Congressional delegation on April 17, the Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman at the same time, the Chief of Staff of the Army General Martin Dempsey, and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen on April 21. The Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough also met with Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, while he was in Washington for International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings. The U.S. military wants an extension to help provide stability in Iraq. They are worried about tensions in the disputed territories in northern Iraq, the influence of Iran, and Iraq’s inability to protect itself from foreign threats. Currently, the U.S. has around 47,000 troops in Iraq. Those will begin drawing down this summer. That’s the reason why Washington is stepping up its efforts to get Iraq to allow them to stay. They want Baghdad to make a decision before all the soldiers are withdrawn because it will be easier logistically.
Iraq’s parties are pushing back however, at least publicly. Politicians from several different lists have said that there would be no changes to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that sets the 2011 withdrawal date. Back in December 2010 Premier Maliki told the Wall Street Journal that there would be no revision of the SOFA. In April, while the parade of Americans were coming to meet him, he said that the Iraqi forces were ready to take over full security of the country. The head of the security committee in parliament who is from Maliki’s State of Law party demanded that the U.S. leave on December 31, and another State of Law member said that the list would vote against any amending of the SOFA. The Sadrists have been the most vocal in their opposition to a troop extension for the Americans. On April 9, Sadr issued a statement warning that he would bring back his Mahid Army if the U.S. stayed past the end of the year, and on April 21 and 23 the movement held demonstrations in Basra and Baghdad against the U.S. presence respectively. There were also daily protests throughout April in Mosul calling for the Americans to leave. Ninewa's Governor Atheel Nujafi from the al-Hadbaa party, an important part of the National Movement, joined the marches. Delegations from Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar also participated, and there was a march in the former as well. Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement also joined the fray. A lawmaker from the list said that the U.S. leaving would help with stability, a spokesman stated that keeping American troops in Iraq would not help with security, and the party allegedly decided against any extension. The problem for Washington is that its lobbying effort comes at a bad time politically for Iraq. The country’s parties are still arguing over forming a new government fourteen months after national elections. Its leaders are afraid that if any of them come out for keeping U.S. troops in the country, they will be attacked by their opponents, and called American puppets by the street. Therefore none of them can publicly come out for changing the SOFA because it will cost them too much.
The Kurdish Alliance is the only major list that has mentioned anything positive about the U.S. presence. President Talabani allegedly told Iran’s ambassador to Iraq that the American forces are needed past 2011. The Kurdish Peshmerga Minister said that he supports a troop extension as well. They feel that the Americans can act as a counter balance to Baghdad, and the return of Arab led Iraqi nationalism that the Kurds see as a threat.
In the midst of all this political wrangling there have been reports that Maliki is willing to let the U.S. stay. There was one story that said Baghdad will announce the official end of the U.S. presence on December 31, and then give U.S. forces special status to stay. At the end of April, the premier also seemed to be saying that the issue had not been decided yet, and that the nation’s parties would meet to discuss the matter. It’s unclear whether these were just rumors, which are rampant in Iraq, or Maliki’s real intensions.
With seven months left in the year, Washington is picking up its efforts to convince the Iraqi government to allow some troops to stay in the country into 2012. There have been a slew of meetings over the issue in just the last month. The Iraqis though, are caught up in their own political squabbles, and are afraid of how they will look to the public and to each other if they come out in support of a U.S. troop extension. Their opponents could use that against them, and they could also lose face with the public. That means as of now, there is little to no chance that Baghdad will let the American forces stay past the end of the year. At the same time, if the government formation process is finally settled in the coming weeks and months, Iraq could change its tune. Whether the U.S. stays or go will likely come down to the last minute, which is what happens all too often in Iraq with anything important.
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