4,000 U.S. Troops To Stay In Iraq Past Dec. 31st Deadline?
There’s still no formal Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the U.S. that would cover this, but the Pentagon is putting its weight behind a plan that would keep up to 4,000 American service members in Iraq past President Obama’s December 31, 2011 deadline:
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq after a deadline for their withdrawal at year’s end, but only to continue training security forces there, a senior military official said on Tuesday.
The recommendation would break a longstanding pledge by President Obama to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by the deadline. But it would still involve significantly fewer forces than proposals presented at the Pentagon in recent weeks by the senior American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, to keep as many as 14,000 to 18,000 troops there.
The proposal for a smaller force — if approved by the White House and the Iraqi government, which is not yet certain — reflected the shifting political realities in both countries.
It also reflected the tension between Mr. Obama’s promise to bring all American forces home and the widely held view among commanders that Iraq is not yet able to provide for its own security. And it reflected the mounting pressures to reduce the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, both wars that have become increasingly unpopular as the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches.
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department.
In Iraq, a lingering American military presence is hugely contentious, even though some political leaders, especially among the Kurds and Sunnis, would like some American troops to stay as a buffer against what they fear will be Shiite political dominance, coupled in turn with the rising influence of neighboring Iran.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has also indicated he would consider allowing American trainers to stay beyond the deadline, negotiated by President George W. Bush. At the same time, he owes his position as prime minister to the political followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who vehemently opposes any Americans remaining.
The Iraqi cabinet authorized the beginning of talks over an American military presence, but insisted that they be limited to a training mission, a senior administration official said. Mr. Panetta’s recommendation fell “within the confines of what the Iraqis said they need,” the official said.
This all depends on the Iraqis, of course, but it seems more and more likely that we’ll end up with some kind of a SOFA allowing training forces before the year is up. Whether that this right thing to do given the Iraqi government’s recent moves to cozy up to Syria and Iran is another question.