Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the door for the first time Thursday to the prospect of a U.S. military presence in Iraq after the December 2011 deadline for troop withdrawal set by last year’s bilateral accord — something President Obama appeared to rule out during a joint appearance on Tuesday.
Speaking to an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, Maliki said the accord, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, would “end” the American military presence in his country in 2011, but “nevertheless, if Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this at that time based on the needs of Iraq,” he said through translation in response to a question from The Washington Independent. “I am sure that the will, the prospects and the desire for such cooperation is found among both parties.”
Maliki continued, “The nature of that relationship — the functions and the amount of [U.S.] forces — will then be discussed and reexamined based on the needs” of Iraq.
The Iraqi prime minister’s allowance for a post-2011 U.S. troop presence comes despite his increasingly nationalist tone to a domestic audience in advance of parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for January. He resisted the advice of Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, to keep a U.S. combat presence in volatile areas like Mosul after June 30, the date set by the Status of Forces Agreement for their evacuation from Iraqi cities and towns. Instead, when they departed, Maliki declared a national holiday. He called the withdrawal a “great victory” for Iraq, language reminiscent of his oft-stated declarations of victory over Iraq’s various insurgent groups. In his remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Maliki moderated that remark, saying the U.S. “withdrawal from the cities is a victory, not a failure for either the Iraqis or the Americans.”
In a joint appearance with Maliki at the White House on Tuesday, President Obama gave no indication that he envisioned a place for U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, instead pledging to “fulfill our commitment to remove all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.” Using language that signaled an end to the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Obama said the departure of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities was an “unmistakable signal” that his administration will “keep our commitments with the sovereign Iraqi government.” There are currently about 130,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Senior administration officials have denied any intent to keep U.S. forces in Iraq past that period as well. “It would require a new agreement, a new negotiation — almost certainly an Iraqi initiative — to provide for some presence beyond the end of 2011,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in February after Obama announced a schedule for staggered U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement. “So in the absence of that agreement, in the absence of any negotiation for such an agreement, it is in keeping with the SOFA that, to say definitively, that we will be out at the end of 2011.”
But some former officials and analysts close to the administration have envisioned small non-combat residual U.S. forces remaining in Iraq past the 2011 deadline to advise Iraqi security forces, echoing the notes Maliki struck on Wednesday. Doug Ollivant, who left the National Security Council as an Iraq director last month, told TWI that the U.S. military will retain ties with its Iraqi counterparts after combat forces depart similar to the “ties we have to many other countries in the region,” which are often for officer training, coordination and advice. (While some countries in the region, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, host U.S. military bases, Obama reiterated Wednesday that “we seek no bases in Iraq.”)
And in a paper for the Center for a New American Security, a think tank with close ties to the Obama Pentagon and State Department, John Nagl, the think tank’s president, wrote last month that developing Iraqi security capacity for air and naval operations “always required some level of American support beyond the SOFA deadline, but now the United States may need to provide continued air and naval protection for an extended period beyond 2011″ owing to the global economic crisis. Both Ollivant and Nagl have longstanding relationships with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia.
While antipathy for the U.S. military presence remains a popular Iraqi sentiment — the streets of Baghdad resembled a “carnival” when U.S. troops withdrew, according to reporters on the ground — some Iraqi legislators and security officials have questioned whether the Status of Forces Agreement provides a sufficient amount of time for Iraqi forces to take control of the still-violent country. Qassim Daoud, a Shiite parliamentarian and former national security adviser to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, has said the accord should be renegotiated to allow U.S. troops to stay until 2020 or 2025. Last year, Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi, suggested in a press conference that the less-mature elements of the Iraqi security forces, like the Air Force, might require American assistance after 2011.
Most of Maliki’s remarks to the U.S. Institute of Peace described a post-2011 U.S.-Iraqi relationship in non-military terms. In keeping with a companion according known as the Strategic Framework Agreement, which spells out terms for a U.S.-Iraqi alliance after 2011, Maliki said he sought a relationship on “all levels — political, economic, educational, cultural.” He extended his thanks to “the international community and all the countries that have cooperated and helped Iraq,” saying Iraq would enjoy a “solid relationship with a great and strong country like the United States.”
A Gallup poll released last week found that 58 percent of Americans consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be a mistake.
*Prime Minister Maliki answered Spencer Ackerman’s question at a press meeting held Thursday, not Wednesday as we originally reported. We regret the error. *
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