BAGHDAD – Iraqi politicians face the contentious question this year of whether to ask U.S. troops to stay beyond an end-of-2011 deadline for their departure. That decision has become far more complicated with the return to Iraq of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The future of U.S. troops in Iraq was a topic of talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Iraqi leaders Thursday during the first visit by a senior U.S. official since Iraq’s new government was formed.
The case for an extension centers around concerns that Iraqi forces may not be ready to keep security. Many Sunnis want U.S. troops to stick around for their protection, fearing domination by the Shiite majority. Kurds see the Americans as a guarantee of their autonomous region in the north. And some in the party of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also want the U.S. forces to stay.
But al-Sadr, a Shiite who came home last week from nearly four years in voluntary exile in Iran, is a formidable obstacle. He immediately put the government on notice that he and his movement, which is a pivotal member of the ruling coalition, will not tolerate any lingering American troop presence.
“We heard a pledge from the government that it will expel the occupier, and we are waiting for it to honor its word,” he said during a speech.
Under a deal agreed upon in 2008, the approximately 47,000 American troops still in the country must leave by the end of 2011. Privately, many in Iraq and the U.S. long assumed that the two sides would re-negotiate for an American troop presence in some form past that deadline. Iraq’s top military commander has said U.S. troops should stay until Iraq’s security forces can defend its borders – which he said could take until 2020.
Biden met Thursday with al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and other officials, but not with al-Sadr, in keeping with long-standing practice on both sides.
Publicly, al-Maliki has rejected an extension, telling a November news conference and then the Wall Street Journal last month that there is no reason for U.S. troops to stay past the deadline.
But a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s bloc said an American troop presence is likely to remain past 2011. He did not have specific information on how many, but said any remaining forces would help with specific tasks such as protecting Iraqi airspace, training Iraqi forces and logistics.
Al-Maliki faces a dilemma.
Asking for American help would be difficult politically, considering he won his new term only with al-Sadr’s reluctant support. A senior Sadrist lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji, said al-Sadr returned in part to ensure that al-Maliki keeps his promise to stick by the deadline.
A longer presence would also infuriate Iraqis who are fed up with nearly eight years of warfare and American occupation.
But many quietly acknowledge that Iraq may not be ready for American forces to leave, given continued violence, sectarian divisions and political instability.
Bombings on Thursday killed two people and underscored the security challenges that are likely to remain well beyond this year.
U.S. combat forces withdrew in August. The troops that remain continue to be involved in counterterrorism and training Iraqi forces. Even at a reduced size, they also provide a concrete foundation for a U.S.-Iraq alliance at a time when Iran is increasing its influence.