Obama adjusts timing on Iraq withdrawal
The president listens to tactical commanders in extending it to 19 months.
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One Iraqi official says the US and Iraq have not yet begun negotiations on the size of the residual force, adding that the Obama administration, currently focused on the American economy and ramping up operations in Afghanistan, was far less engaged with Iraq policy than the previous administration.Skip to next paragraph
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"[T]he key is what will we be doing to retain a residual force and a strategic posture to help if problems arise," says the official, who did not want to speak publicly about the withdrawal plan before it was announced.
Indeed, American troops are already pulling back out of Iraqi cities and gradually reducing their visibility on Iraqi streets, acting more as "firemen" and responding to security situations as needed.
"The Americans are not what they used to be here six months ago, four months ago," the Iraqi official says. "Basically they are letting go in a way but definitely we have to have a sustained presence here for a long time because without this it could unravel."
The Bush administration had largely been opposed to withdrawal timelines, arguing that insurgents would either wait out an American withdrawal to foment more unrest – something they could do anyway – or use the date to undermine security gains made over the previous year. Before President Bush left office, however, he appeared to have resigned himself to a drawdown within an unspecified period of time. Two key agreements, the Status of Forces agreement, which codifies the legal framework for US troop presence, and the Strategic Agreement, which includes outlines on how and when American forces would engage in combat, were signed last year, requiring combat forces to be out by the end of 2010.
Political leaders and military commanders in Iraq are most worried about areas of the country with political and demographic tensions that have proved more resistant to the "surge" of American and Iraqi forces in early 2007. Iraqi officials have asked US forces to stay in some areas like Mosul and Diyala in the north.
"We won't be able to keep peace in Mosul without the Americans," says another Iraqi official.
Although some Iraqi politicians publicly demand an immediate withdrawal of American forces, a move that would be popular on the street, privately they appear to agree on the need for a sustained American presence, albeit one with a lower profile.
"We have been reassured by the new administration that there will not be a major change, or a quick disengagement or quick pullout from Iraq," Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zubari told reporters earlier this month.
Both American and Iraqi officials have long believed the US would have a sustained advisory role in Iraq for years to come, despite Obama's campaign rhetoric. The US has trained as many as 565,000 Iraqi security forces, including both army, police and border forces, as of last fall. Although that force has made progress over the years, US and Iraqi officials believe much work remains to be done.
The ultimate answer to how many American forces remain there may largely be up to the Iraqis, the US defense official says.
"The Iraqis themselves are key to answering those questions."