To meet June deadline, US and Iraqis redraw city borders
'What is a city' is one question the US and Iraq must answer as they try to balance a requirement that US combat forces withdraw from cities next month and the need for US help to maintain security.
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Some US and Iraqi officials suspect that his hard-line rhetoric is almost purely for political purposes in a country where people are widely opposed to the continued presence of US forces. The Iraqi parliament voted to approve the SOFA late last year only after linking it to a referendum this summer which would allow Iraqis to vote on whether US troops should leave sooner than the end of 2011.Skip to next paragraph
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With Maliki's public insistence that there will be no extension for US forces, plans for the promised referendum appear to have quietly disappeared.
"We promise a lot of things we don't deliver," says one Iraqi member of parliament when asked about the poll.
'We've never known how to be guests'
Apart from the issue of designating US bases as inside or outside cities, Iraqi authorities are also approving the existence of combat troops within select joint security stations in and around Baghdad to be able to maintain security in places that have been key to the reduction in violence, a US military official says.
Although the mission for most brigades and battalions is not expected to substantially change after June 30, US military officials have stopped using the term forward operating base in favor of the more benign-sounding contingency operating site.
The SOFA and a wider strategic framework agreement set out a relationship between the US and Iraq very different from that of the military occupation of the past six years.
"We have acknowledged that the government of Iraq leads the nation. We are their guests," says the senior US commander.
"We've never known how to be guests," says a US military official in the field.
US-Iraqi partnership: 'A delicate choreography'
One of the challenges of that new relationship is how the US can continue to wield influence on key decisions without being seen to do so.
"For so long we have been one of the driving forces here ... it is such a hard habit to break," says a senior US State Department official. "I think we need to do everything we can not to make ourselves an issue."
As well as security, he says, the United States still has a role to play in promoting Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, tamping down Arab-Kurdish tensions, and fostering effective governance and economic growth – all of which have an impact on security.
"It has to be seen here as doing it quietly ... so that you are not doing things for the Iraqis, the Iraqis are doing things for themselves but with your help and we remain in the shadows.... It's a very delicate choreography," adds the State Department official.
US concern: Political turmoil after 2010 elections
All of that is being worked out against the backdrop of two crucial deadlines: August 2010 for all combat troops to be out of Iraq and the end of 2011 for US forces to withdraw completely. In between, there are key Iraqi events that will likely lead to increased tensions, including national elections planned for January.
"We are planning against a finite end and a finite timeline from a US perspective," says the senior commander, saying that a potential security vacuum amid the political turmoil of a new Iraqi government next year is one of the coalition's biggest concerns.
Despite Maliki's hard-line statements rejecting a continued US troop presence here, many US and Iraqi officials say they continue to believe the two sides will come up with a new arrangement after the current agreement expires.
"If our long-term goal is strategic partnership in Iraq, I would suspect beyond 2011 we would have some kind of long-term presence here," says the senior US commander.