A rocket attack that killed five American soldiers in eastern Baghdad Monday inflicted the single worst death toll on US troops in Iraq in more than two years and renewed discussion of plans for the withdrawal of the remainder of US forces by year’s end.
US military officials have made it clear that while security on the ground in Iraq has improved in recent years, “there is still much work to be done and still plenty of extremists aided by states and organizations who are bent on pulling Iraq back into violence,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said during a visit to Iraq in April.
US troops are currently scheduled to leave by Dec. 31 under a security agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. When President Obama took office in January 2009, there were 144,000 US military personnel in the country.
The Iraqi government could request US troops to stay beyond 2011, but no such request has yet been made.
“Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some US troops to stay, I am certain my government would welcome the dialogue,” Admiral Mullen said during his April 22 visit to Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has echoed these sentiments, telling an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on May 24 that having US troops remain beyond 2011 “sends a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving, that we will continue to play a part. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing,” he added.
As recently as last week, senior US officials predicted that Iraq was poised to become “a political and economic leader in the Middle East.” Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, acknowledged, however, that there remain considerable concerns in the Pentagon “about the readiness of the Iraqi government to provide security in Iraq as US forces draw down.”
Mr. Kahl emphasized, too, that terrorists and militias continue to pose a threat throughout the country. In mid-May, three coordinated car bombs killed more than two dozen people in the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and at the end of May, Al Qaeda conducted a series of attacks in Baghdad that left 14 people dead and dozens wounded, Kahl said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia on June 1.
The Pentagon has signaled frequently in recent months that if Iraq decides that it wants US troops to stay beyond the 2011 deadline, they must make the request soon “should there be any chance of avoiding irrevocable logistics and operational decisions we must make in the coming weeks,” Mullen said during his April visit to Iraq. “Time is running short for any negotiations to occur.”
But Mr. Gates acknowledged last month the political difficulties that come with Iraqi leaders requesting an extended US troop presence in the country. “We have to realize that it is a political challenge for the Iraqis because, whether we like it or not, we’re not very popular there” – particularly among the followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he added. “The Sadirists clearly want us out.”
Some defense analysts are wondering whether the attacks Monday that appear to have been launched out of eastern Baghdad in the neighborhood of Sadr City – a Shiite-controlled stronghold once notorious for its anti-US forces militias – could be an effort to dissuade the Iraqi government from asking US forces to stay.
It could, additionally, be a brutal public relations move, analysts point out – a bid by supporters of al-Sadr to claim credit for chasing the Americans out of the country.
“At the micro level, I think it’s like the Mafia – there are all kinds of 17-year-old Sadrists who are trying to make their bones before US troops leave Iraq,” says Douglas Ollivant, former director for Iraq at the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations and senior fellow with the New America Foundation. “At the macro level, the Sadrists know we’re leaving and they are trying to claim credit for our departure.”
Pentagon officials continue to stress that whether US troops remain in Iraq beyond 2011 or not, continued US engagement with Iraq remains vital. “We are now at the point where the strategic dividends of our tremendous sacrifices and huge investments in Iraq are within reach as long as we take the proper steps to consolidate them,” Kahl said.
What remains to be seen is what, precisely, those proper steps will be.