Both Washington and Baghdad are hinting at the continued deployment of American troops in Iraq beyond the December withdrawal deadline. Eight years after the invasion, foreign troops may still be necessary for stability.
The Obama Administration wants to stick to the deadline
After battling a bloody insurgency for years, the United States is set to turn the page on the Iraq war and withdraw its remaining 45,000 troops by December, 2011. The withdrawal from Iraq is part of US President Barack Obama's stated strategy of refocusing American military power on the fight against al Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
But as the officially fixed deadline nears, political leaders in both Washington and Baghdad are equivocating on whether or not a full withdrawal should actually occur. The US has placed growing pressure on the Iraqi government to decide whether or not they want a residual American troop presence to remain in the country beyond 2011 to ensure security.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who oversaw the 2007 surge of US troops credited with stabilizing Iraq, has signaled to Baghdad that Washington would be willing to support a continued military presence in the country.
"We are open to that possibility," Gates said during a surprise visit to Iraq in April. "But they have to ask and time is running out."
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while claiming that Iraqi forces can maintain internal stability, has also called for stronger military ties with Washington and has stated that he will leave the question of a US troop presence up to the Iraqi parliament.
Over the course of the past eight years, the United States has become deeply embedded in Iraqi society, acting as a critical mediator between the country's fractious religious and ethnic groups. Although domestic pressure in the US and Iraq forced both sides to agree on the December deadline, political realities on the ground may demand a continued American military presence.
Shifting US Interests
According to Scott Carpenter, former director of the governance group within the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, America's perception of its interests in Iraq has undergone an important shift since President Obama took office.
Carpenter says that while the Bush Administration viewed Iraq as part of a broader regional strategy to help contain Iran, the Obama Administration wants to normalize relations with Baghdad and engage Iraq as it would any other sovereign nation.
Iraqi security forces have taken the lead
"What's critical from an American national security interest in the Obama Administration's view is to effectively meet our commitment to withdraw as soon as possible and to complete one mission and be able to focus on Afghanistan," Carpenter told Deutsche Welle.
However, Carpenter noted that both Washington and Baghdad always conditioned the timetable on the situation on the ground in Iraq. Although security conditions have improved, uncertainty remains over how the US withdrawal will impact the current progress.
Paul Freiherr von Maltzahn, Germany's former ambassador to Iraq, says that Washington has invested its own pride and reputation in Iraq's future by attempting to move the country toward greater stability after years of sectarian warfare.
"If Iraq would turn into a failed state it would even more prove that the adventure to intervene in Iraq was not only deadly wrong but also that the end is wrong," Maltzahn, executive vice-president of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
"The intention is to at least have it end in a happy end."
The US presence in Iraq and the timetable to withdraw is governed by a bilateral treaty between the two countries drafted during the Bush Administration. According to Stephen Biddle, political populists in Iraq - led by the head of the Shiite Sadrist faction Muqtada al-Sadr - demanded a withdrawal timeline that neither Baghdad nor Washington actually wanted.
"The problem at the time was this negotiation was being conducted under the shadow of coming elections and the US presence was then and is now very unpopular among Iraqi voters," Biddle, an expert on US national security with the Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
"If you talk privately to almost all members of the Iraqi elite, they would all tell you at the time that they wanted a US presence and they wanted it beyond 2011," he continued.
"The trouble is none of them were willing to say that publicly. If they did it would be easy for the Sadrists to demagogue them as puppets of the hated Americans and they weren't willing to take the domestic political risk."
Biddle says that many Iraqi politicians view a continued American presence as necessary because they do not believe the Iraqi military can secure the country's borders and airspace from its large neighbors such as Iran.
Internal balance of power
In Iraq's fractured political environment, the US has played the role of a mediator for the past eight years. Carpenter says most of Iraq's factions have some sort of stake in a continued American presence in the country.
Sunnis fear a US withdrawal could lead to renewed sectarian violence; the Kurds want Washington to protect their autonomous region; and many Shiites view America as a balance to Iranian influence.
"For many of the political elite the United States and interaction with Americans at a very serious level as partners is part of the political DNA in Iraq," Carpenter said.
US troops are set to totally withdraw by the end of December
Although Iraq has stabilized compared to the level of violence it faced during the height of the civil war, clashes remain common in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. Kurds claim the city and its resources as their own while Arabs dispute the Kurdish view.
"Up until now there hasn't been an agreement between the Kurds and Arabs on the territorial aspects nor on the oil and revenue," Maltzahn said. "Negotiations haven't even started. As long as there's no agreement there will be a continuation of clashes and perhaps even more."
Maltzahn says that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki views the US military presence as an important stabilizer that helps to prevent this unresolved dispute from boiling over into wider violence.
The competing interests of Iraq's various political, religious and ethnic factions may create an incentive among the country's governing class to ultimately call for a continued US presence in some form. But extending the American presence beyond December, 2011 would require parliamentary approval in a nation anxious to see foreign troops leave.
"It would have to be presented in a different way," Maltzahn said of an extended US presence. "The need is seen but the vox populi is against it because they say now it's finally the end of the American occupation."
Maltzahn said a continued American presence would most likely take the form of an advisory and training role.
Biddle believes that - in the end - Washington and Baghdad will probably stick to the deadline they have set.
"The likeliest case is the US withdraws and Iraq muddles through somehow," he said.
Experts say Maliki wants a continued US presence
"There's a possibility that it turns out much nastier than that. I think it's worth it as an insurance policy against that possibility to leave some forces in the country. Frankly, I think that's the way the Iraqi elite think about it too."
However, the Obama Administration - which sees America's core national interests elsewhere in the world - is determined to turn the page on the Iraq war.
"The only way that the US will stay in Iraq is if the Iraqis ask for it," Carpenter said. "Our military plan is to get the hell out of there by December 31."
"This administration is not going to lift one little finger to keep American forces in anyway there."
Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge