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US 'offering' to keep troops in Iraq? More like begging for permission to stay.

The US appears desperate to keep troops in Iraq beyond this year's deadline. The Iraqis? Not so much.

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For evidence of the still-simmering sectarian problem in Iraq, look no further than the process that formed the Iraqi government. It took Prime Minister Maliki nine months of politicking, backroom dealing, and public grandstanding to form a government after Iraq's last election. He may have deftly played the political game to win the premiership, beating back a challenge by Ayad Allawi, whose largely Sunni party won the most seats in Iraq's March 2010 election, but it came at a price: appointing the ministers for Defense and Interior were indefinitely delayed.

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Those crucial security positions remain unfilled 15 months later, with the Shiite Islamist Maliki in de facto control of both portfolios. He and Mr. Allawi, a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party who defected and became close to the United States, barely speak. Sunni politicians allege that Shiite parties continue to run death squads loyal to them under the cover of the Interior Ministry. In the past two years, Human Rights Watch says it has discovered secret prisons where torture is used under the authority of the Interior Ministry.

The simple fact that the two most important security jobs in the country remain unfilled 15 months after elections, essentially because Sunnis and Shiites don't trust either side to even-handedly protect Iraqi citizens, is a measure of the risks in Iraq, and how difficult it would be to get approval for an extended US stay in the country.

If that approval isn't extended, the US civilian presence will be largely reliant on the Iraqi Army and police for protection. The US opened a sprawling $590 million embassy complex in Baghdad 18 months ago. It's designed to be the largest US mission in the world, with 21 buildings supposed to provide space to 1,200 employees – diplomats and aid workers both. That operation will probably have fewer than 200 Marines to protect it if a new deal on additional forces isn't reached with the Iraqis.

In a reminder of the risks that remain, a rocket exploded near the embassy on Sunday, killing four Iraqi construction workers.

US Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey has blamed Iran for much of the recent violence in the country. “We’re not talking about a smoking pistol. There is no doubt this is Iranian," Ambassador Jeffrey told the Washington Post yesterday.

He's told reporters that many of the explosives and missiles used in recent attacks are Iranian-made, and has singled out three Sunni groups – most prominently the Kataib Hezbollah – as responsible for the surge in violence. There's no doubt that Iran has been building ties with Iraq insurgent groups from the moment Saddam was deposed by US forces (and was involved in aiding militias close to Prime Minister Maliki for years prior to the dictator's ouster).

Iran's motives for tying down the US in Iraq are clear and it has traditionally made alliances with militant groups to extend its influence in other parts of the region (think of Hezbollah in Lebanon). But the scope of attacks in Iraq in recent weeks – on US forces, on politicians, on Shiites and Sunnis alike – indicates that whatever Iranian role exists in recent events, the story doesn't end there.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

IN PICTURES: Iraq combat mission over

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