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US signals permanent stay in Iraq

Critics say a long-term US military presence may provoke greater Iraqi resistance of the 'occupier.'

By Staff writer / June 12, 2007



Washington

This spring's debate over a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq may have implied that the US presence there is likely to wind down soon, but recent comments from both the administration and military officials suggest a different scenario.

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In Washington and among American military officers in Iraq, the idea of establishing permanent US bases there is under discussion – with one official citing as an example the decades-long presence of US troops in Korea. The aim would be to keep American soldiers on Iraqi soil well into the century as a support for the Iraqi government against outside aggression, a means of training and developing a new Iraqi military, and a platform from which the US could fight Al Qaeda and other war-on-terror opponents.

Yet as early proposals in notebooks at the White House and the Pentagon are slowly revealed to a US public increasingly opposed to the Iraq war, many Iraq and Middle East experts warn that any plan for permanent bases would cement the US image in Iraq and the region as that of an occupying force.

"This is a really bad idea, one that will only feed the image of the US as the occupier, the colonial power," says Larry Diamond, a former official with the American provisional authority that governed Iraq in the two years after Saddam Hussein's ouster. "There's no way long-term military bases are going to be acceptable to a majority of the Iraqi population."

Mr. Diamond, now an expert in democratization at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., has argued for more than two years for the US to relinquish any plans for permanent bases. Such a step, perhaps more than anything else the US could do, he says, would cool the conflict and ease the deadly opposition to the 160,000 US troops now on Iraqi soil.

Even supporters of a permanent American presence in Iraq say now is not the time to stoke flames of anti-American feeling by openly discussing prospects for permanent bases.

"We'd be stupid not to be planning for what I see is the probability of long-term bases," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East. "But it's premature to openly discuss the prospect until you win the war, so I'd have to say the floating of these ideas was not very artfully done."

WHAT GATES AND SNOW BROACHED

In recent comments to the press, White House spokesman Tony Snow broached the idea of a long-term US military presence in Iraq and specifically drew a comparison to Korea and the 30,000 troops the US keeps there five decades after the end of the Korean War. At the same time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke of a "protracted" US presence in Iraq.

Such comments from the civilian leadership increasingly mirror the perspective of US military leaders on the ground in Iraq. An Army officer who requested anonymity on the issue because he is not authorized to discuss long-term policy said, for example, that a consensus is growing among US military leaders for the need for long-term training of Iraqi forces and a continued US presence to fight Al Qaeda.

In making public statements about the possibility of permanent bases in Iraq, the Bush administration sought to send a signal to the Iraqi government, say some experts.

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