To stay or not?
Pressure is mounting on the Iraqi government to make a decision on the future of US troops in the country, writes Salah Nasrawi
With only five months to go before US forces are scheduled finally to leave Iraq, the country's leadership remains sharply divided over the future of the US presence in the war-battered nation, with Washington raising the pressure for a decision to be made on whether some US troops should remain in the country after this year's December deadline.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on his first visit to Iraq, pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki on Monday to decide whether some US troops would be allowed to remain in the country into 2012.
The newly installed Pentagon chief said that time was running out and that the US military needed to know one way or another. "I'd like them to make a decision. You know, do they want us to stay? Don't they want us to stay? But damn it, make a decision," Panetta told reporters accompanying him on the visit to Baghdad.
The US combat mission in Iraq officially ended more than seven months ago, and remaining US forces, some 46,000 troops, are scheduled to withdraw from the country by 31 December under the terms of a 2008 security agreement between the two countries.
US President Barack Obama has pledged to comply with the agreement, which was concluded by the previous Bush administration, but administration officials in recent weeks have suggested that thousands of US troops should stay in the country.
They argue that Iraq's military remains unprepared to handle the full range of internal and foreign threats the country faces without continuing American training and assistance.
However, keeping US troops in Iraq after the deadline for their departure would require agreement from Iraq's deeply divided government. Many Iraqis, including key political figures, have meanwhile called on Washington to withdraw its troops from the war-stricken nation.
For months, Iraqi leaders, who never speak with one voice, have been reluctant to approve any extension to the US military presence, fearing a public backlash should they agree to one.
Al-Maliki has previously said that his government would decide by August if it wanted to request a troop extension, but he seems to be having trouble securing agreement from other political leaders and is unwilling to shoulder the burden of rewriting the security accord with the Americans alone.
On Monday, Al-Maliki told Panetta that it was not up to him to take such a decision alone. "The final decision about any presence of American troops after the withdrawal deadline belongs to a national consensus and to an agreement by the political blocs and Iraqi parliament," his office quoted him as saying in a statement.
After hours of discussions on Saturday, top Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders also failed to agree on any future US presence. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that participants had agreed to wait two weeks before making any final decision on whether US troops should extend their stay in Iraq beyond the year-end deadline.
"The issue of the US troop presence has been thoroughly discussed, and our brothers decided to tackle the issue with friends, allies and other parties, in order to arrive at a decisive result in two weeks time," Talabani said.
Kurdish leaders have supported the idea of extending the US troop presence beyond this year's deadline in the past, but there is only a slim chance that Sunni and Shia leaders will agree on any extension to the deadline within the next two weeks, fearing sectarian unrest, and even threats to their lives, should they do so.
After Saturday's meeting, leaders of the mainly Sunni Al-Iraqiya bloc urged Al-Maliki, who also holds the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to make an assessment of whether Iraqi security forces would be ready to take up their duties once the Americans leave.
The move seemed designed to throw the ball into Al-Maliki's court.
Meanwhile, the bloc led by radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, a key group in Al-Maliki's fragile coalition government, has opposed a continuing US military presence and has threatened to escalate protests and even military resistance should the US troops stay on.
On Saturday, Al-Sadr said in a statement on his website that his Promised Day Brigade, an elite unit established in 2008 to target US troops, would begin operating again if US troops stayed on in the country.
"If the American troops stay in Iraq... we will do our best to increase the number of our fighters to kill them," said Salah Al-Obeidi, a spokesman for the Al-Sadr Movement.
Shortly before Panetta's meeting with Al-Maliki, three Katyusha rockets landed in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad near the prime minister's office wounding several persons.
The rockets, believed to have been fired by the Iran-backed Al-Sadr militia, could have been intended as a message that this is what the US should expect if its troops remain in Iraq beyond 2011.
Anti-American violence, especially in Shia-controlled southern Iraq, has been on the rise, and June was the deadliest month for US forces in Iraq for three years, with 15 soldiers killed, mostly in attacks on American bases and patrols.
US officials blamed the escalation on the indecision of the Iraqi leadership and said that the attacks on US forces were an effort by Iranian-backed militias to make it appear as if they were forcing the American troops out of the country.
The Obama administration has thus far refrained from taking a public stance on the future of US troops in Iraq, leaving the door open for speculation about the logic behind demands for troops to stay in the country after December.
While some US officials cite fears of renewed sectarian violence in the country and intensified militant attacks after the Americans leave, others mention US strategic interests in the Middle East and the Gulf as being the main reason for keeping US troops in Iraq.
Former US defense secretary Robert Gates told the satellite TV channel CNN last month that the US could keep a "residual American presence beyond the December 2011 deadline" for training and to "participate in counter-terrorism," while Republican senator John McCain told the London Financial Times this week that the US should keep as many as 13,000 troops in Iraq beyond the end-of-year deadline in order to "help keep the peace around hot spots."
Panetta's visit to Iraq and the tough talking about Iran might provide a perspective on why Washington needs its troops to stay in Iraq. During his tour, the new Pentagon chief turned his attention to Iran and threats by Tehran-backed militia against American troops in Iraq.
Panetta said that the United States was concerned about Iran providing weapons to Iraqi militants and that it would take unilateral action if needed to deal with the threat.
"We cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen. I assure you that this is not something we're just going to walk away from, we're going to take this on, straight on," Panetta said.
It is now conventional wisdom that Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads over Iraq and in many other Middle Eastern conflicts, but the question raised by Panetta's statement is whether the US now plans to turn Iraq into a battleground with Iran, wanting its troops to remain in the country in order to surround Iran with American soldiers.
The continued presence of US troops in Iraq could give more time to Iraqi security forces to train, or prevent a resurgence of sectarian strife in the country, though sceptics argue that these things, which Washington has failed to do in eight years of occupation, can hardly be done in just another year.
Hounded as they are by the prospect of greater unpopularity should they decide to keep American troops on Iraqi soil, Al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have only themselves to blame if they fail to rebuild an efficient Iraqi army and police force to fill the security vacuum once the Americans leave.