If Iraq asks Obama for a longer US troop presence

Many Iraq watchers expect Iraq to ask President Obama not to pull out American forces at the end of 2011. The US should prepare now on how to respond to such a sincere request.

News about Iraq has largely dropped off the media radar since August, when President Obama announced an end to the US combat mission there and a total withdrawal of forces by 2012. But it’s likely to come roaring back soon.

Not because of more delays in forming a government. And not because of Iran’s meddling in Iraq, or more terrorist attacks – sadly, violence in Iraq remains about 60 percent of that in Afghanistan while an Al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, has shown new boldness in hitting civilians.

No, rather, many experts predict Iraq will soon ask Mr. Obama to extend the time for US forces to stay, not only to protect the nation’s fledgling democracy but to help Iraq survive as a nation in a hostile neighborhood.

Iraq is far behind the schedule set in the 2008 security pact with the United States to bolster its military and police. Its ability to defend its borders and its oil fields – both of which are critical to US interests – is years away.

And there is much doubt in Washington about the US State Department’s ability to take over the American military’s role in managing key security aspects of Iraq, such as Kurdish-Arab friction or forming new police forces.

Polls show most Iraqis want a long-term US military presence while, of course, most Americans want to end this Bush-era project to create an Arab democracy in a region where autocracy breeds terrorism.

Congress is very reluctant to increase funding for Iraq. Still, if Iraq does make a plea for extended US security, Obama must start now to prepare lawmakers to consider such a sincere and meritorious request and find budget cuts to pay for it. Even asking for hearings on Iraq during the lame-duck session would be wise.

Obama said in August that the US is turning a page in Iraq. That doesn’t mean it’s time to close the book.

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