As the United States begins to shut down combat operations in Iraq, there's a growing debate between the political heads and militaries of both countries (AP) about whether U.S. soldiers should stay beyond the 2011 deadline for a complete troop withdrawal stipulated in a security agreement between the two nations. By September 1, fifty thousand U.S. soldiers will be left in Iraq, down from a maximum force-strength of around 170,000, with their combat authority curtailed. According to several U.S. officials, there are only sixty thousand troops remaining in the country currently; by the time ten thousand more have left over the next several weeks it will mark the completion of a "gradual process" (USAToday) that includes turning over military bases to Iraqis after the Sept. 1 deadline.
But several factors are causing concern that perhaps the United States is planning its exit prematurely. The first is Iraq's unsettled political situation--there is still only an interim government after national elections five months ago, and no coalition is in sight. The second is an uptick in violence, including a rash of killings, notably a suicide attack on an army recruitment center in Baghad BBC that killed at least fifty-nine people.
For some in the region, these issues underscore the need for continued training of the Iraqi army. An editorial in the Jordan Times urging U.S. President Barack Obama to reconsider the drawdown notes that it "can only add fuel to the raging fire in Iraq," which could "lend support to the overall instability in the region." More specifically, there are worries that the absence of a coalition government could lead to civil war and an increase in Iranian meddling into Iraq (Haaretz).
Both Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have insisted that the withdrawal plans will not be altered. Obama has repeatedly asserted his commitment to the September 1 date, and U.S. officials say they expected an uptick in violence during the holy month of Ramadan, which just started, as al-Qaeda insurgents try to exploit the political vacuum (Reuters). One reason for Obama's eagerness to hold to the deadline is the war in Afghanistan, for which the president authorized tens of thousands of new troops last fall. Gen. David Petraeus, who heads U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, said the war there will take time and commitment (AP), and that if necessary he would be open to recommending against withdrawal of U.S. forces next summer as scheduled.
Iraq's military has indicated a preference for a continued strong U.S. presence. A top Iraqi military official, Lieutenant General Babaker Zerbari, said that his forces, particularly the air force, weren't prepared to take over and that "the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020" (al-Jazeera). There are reports that al-Qaeda is attempting to make a comeback (Guardian) by trying to persuade former Sunni allies to rejoin the group by paying more than the monthly salary they receive from the government. U.S. Brig. General Patrick M. Higgins has noted that though there has been a drop-off in foreign funding for the group, al-Qaeda in Iraq's "cellular structure" remains "pretty much intact" (WashPost).
Even as Washington works to fully implement the shift from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to "Operation New Dawn" on September 1, some senior military officials are acknowledging that the U.S. presence might last longer (VOA) than expected if Iraq's new government--when a government is finally formed--requests it. "We're obviously open to that discussion," says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "But that initiative will have to come from the Iraqis." General Ray Odierno, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has urged Congress to reconsider plans for next year's substantial cuts to the military and State Department budgets for Iraq (WashPost).
"The story in Iraq is unfinished, whatever the Obama administration, and the generals and diplomats who do its bidding, may say," writes Anthony Shadid (NYT).
President Obama is leaving Iraq for the wrong reasons, writes Con Coughlin in the Telegraph, notably his sinking popularity.
President Obama's August 2 speech announcing that the drawdown date will be met can be found here.
The U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces agreement can be found here.