Iraq withdrawal: How many US troops will remain?
The Obama administration is considering a plan to leave about 3,000 support troops behind at the end of the year, if Iraqis agree. But reports suggest that the Pentagon is angling for more.
(Page 2 of 2)
Indeed, the good news for US forces’ diminishing casualties does not mean that Iraq has achieved domestic tranquility. A recent uptick in sectarian violence – including the deadly bombing of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad during Ramadan – has some Iraqis, especially Sunnis and Kurds, worried that a full US withdrawal will lead to new tensions with the country’s Shiite majority.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But Iraq’s prime minister, the Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, is showing no signs (at least publicly) of favoring any residual US force in Iraq. Some elements in his coalition, in particular the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are outspoken in their opposition to any US forces staying behind after the end of the year.
“Maliki has to be thinking long and hard about this,” says Lawrence Korb, a foreign affairs analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “Moqtada al-Sadr is the guy who put him over the top [in the last elections], and now he’s the guy out there insisting he’ll cause some damage if the Americans don’t get out on schedule.”
Another factor for Mr. Maliki, however, is his desire to maintain good relations with the US and to keep his access open to American arms.
Mr. Korb, a former Pentagon official, says he has heard more talk of the military seeking a post-2011 force for Iraq closer to 10,000, but he says the top number of 18,000 may be what some commanders have concluded would be optimal.
“The military doesn’t put out numbers as a bargaining chip, but really what they think they need,” he says. “They don’t want to see this place fall apart after all the sacrifices they’ve made up to now.”
On the other hand, he says it is stretching reality to say that any remaining troops would be there simply for training purposes.
Others point out that the US presence by any measure will be substantial after the end of the year, with contractors remaining in significant numbers to provide protection to US diplomats. At the same time the CIA is expected to boost its operations in Iraq, with concerns growing over Iran’s influence and activity inside Iraq and around the region.
The issue of troops in Iraq is not likely to become a consuming issue for Mr. Obama, Korb says, as long as the cost is relatively low, and US troops remain out of harm’s way. “If Sadr makes good on his threat to give the US trouble if we stay,” he says, “then Obama has problems.”
The US may have some strong levers to pull for getting what they want from the Iraqis, but as Kachejian notes, a residual force of US troops is ultimately an Iraqi decision.
“At the end of the day, Iraq is a sovereign nation, they will make the call,” he says. “And if they say, ‘You gotta go,’ then we gotta go.”