On October 21, 2011, President Barak Obama announced that all American combat troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the year. This fulfilled a promise he made back when he was running for president. The administration was pushing to keep several thousand U.S. soldiers in Iraq into 2012, but Iraq’s parties, with the exception of the Kurds, were all against this idea. Baghdad and Washington are still in negotiations over trainers however.
The U.S. and Iraq have been in talks over an American troop extension for at least a year now. Washington originally pushed for around 10,000-20,000 soldiers to stay into 2012, but that would require a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). In 2008, the Bush administration signed off on a SOFA with Iraq that required all American forces to be out of the country by December 31, 2011. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said a new agreement would not be possible with the current political alignment in parliament. That led the two sides to change their tactics to calling for 3,000-5,000 trainers. Iraq’s political parties held two meetings that agreed to this concept, but they would not grant immunity to them. This is what eventually led to the breakdown in talks.
Many in the U.S. interpreted this as the work of the Sadrists who are the most ardent opponents of any American presence in Iraq, but in fact, there was broad consensus amongst Iraq’s other parties on this matter. The Sadrists have continuously rejected any American civilian or military personnel in the country. Most of the other parties supported the idea of trainers, but with no legal exemptions. Back on August 8 for example, Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement (INM) said that he rejected any troop extension, but that trainers could be needed. Six days later, Vice President Tariq Hashemi of the INM seconded him. The next month, Allawi himself said that a troop extension was not necessary, and that American forces were not the answer to Iraq’s myriad problems. Finally, in early October, all of the major parties, but the Sadrists agreed upon a U.S. training mission, but with no immunity. The Kurds were the only exception. On October 21, after Obama’s announcement, a spokesman for the Kurdish Coalition said that the government should have found a compromise on the immunity issue. Rather than Moqtada al-Sadr exerting undue influence in the Iraqi government, most of Iraq’s major parties were united in their stance that U.S trainers were necessary to help Iraq’s security forces into the future, but that granting them immunity would be an affront to the country’s dignity. This issue eventually led to deadlock with Washington.
Despite that initial failure, the two sides are still committed to working out some kind of deal. The Chief of Staff of Iraq’s Army, General Babaker Zebari issued a statement saying that Iraq’s military still needed assistance. The same thing was said by Prime Minister Maliki, and by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Iraq has even offered ways to get around the immunity issue by allowing them to operate as part of the NATO training mission, or under the State Department. That would probably mean only a few hundred rather than a few thousand as originally envisioned, but it would still mean some kind of military presence in Iraq for the U.S. This is driven by the fact that Iraq’s military is incapable of external defense currently, and is in the process of purchasing advanced weapons from the Americans like jet fighters, tanks, etc., which require foreign help. Officials from both countries say that talks are still underway, and that details will not be worked out until next year. Even if that fails, Iraq is likely to hire contractors to do the work, because it cannot learn how to use all this new equipment on its own.
The hopes of some in Washington to maintain a robust military presence in Iraq past 2011 are quickly fading. Rather than being able to dictate terms, Baghdad is in the driver’s seat now, and is firm on wanting some trainers, but without granting them exemptions from Iraqi laws. That still leaves the door open to several hundred American troops staying under current training missions, or hiring out American civilians as contractors to help Iraqis learn how to operate their new tanks and aircraft. Both countries continue to talk about this issue, but they are going nowhere right now. Like many things in Iraq, negotiations are likely to drag out for months, and continue into next year before any final decision is made. More importantly, what this episode shows is that the American period of Iraqi history is coming to an end, and Baghdad is exerting its independence and sovereignty more and more.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq VP says US pullout will improve security,” 8/14/11
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Barzanji, Yahya, “Kurd president calls for US forces to stay in Iraq,” Associated Press, 9/6/11
Burns, Robert, “Panetta: Military’s role to be discussed with Iraq,” Associated Press, 10/21/11
Dreazen, Yochi, “Disconnect Divides Washington, Baghdad Over Future U.S. Presence,” National Journal, 9/21/11
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Markey, Patrick, “Analysis: Iraq U.S. troop deal drifts over immunity,” Reuters, 10/16/11
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- “MP: Iraqi Front for National Dialogue refuse staying any American soldier under any name,” 8/8/11
- “Muqtada Al Sadr considers US embassy employees “occupiers; should be fought” after SOFA expires,” 10/22/11
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraqi Deputy Says U.S. Wants To Maintain Troop Presence,” 4/8/11
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Wilson, Scott and DeYoung, Karen, “All U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011,” Washington Post, 10/21/11