Will US troops stay in Iraq?

08:21, May 31, 2011      

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The U.S. government recently announced that if Iraq wants to keep U.S. troops after 2011, the United States would readily agree. According to sources, the United States, still keeping 46,000 troops in Iraq, hopes to keep 10,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops in nine military bases in Iraq after 2011 for as long as more than four years. In other words, U.S. forces will remain in Iraq by the end of U.S. President Barrack Obama's second presidency if he is re-elected to a second term in 2012. However, several U.S. media agencies believe the Obama administration is playing "political hardball," and some Iraqi politicians believe this is tantamount to "playing with fire."

Obama promised to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010 and withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 early in his presidency. However, impassioned campaign promises and actual governance in reality are often not the same thing. The fickleness on the issue of troop withdrawal in Iraq can be described as a regular phenomenon in U.S. political life, which allows people to see the dilemma of the United States in Iraq.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S troops' extended stay in Iraq is out of consideration of Iraq's future and U.S. interests in this region. The turmoil in West Asia and North Africa since 2011 has had a profound impact on the political situation in the Middle East. Both Iraq and Iran are controlled by the Shia branch of Islam. but Iraq is considered to be on the geo-political "fault line" as it lays in the middle of Iran and other Middle East countries under the control of the Sunni branch of Islam.

Therefore, the United States is concerned about Iran using Iraq as a springboard to support the Shiite militias in Syria and Lebanon. In addition, the al-Maliki government in Iraq has been making efforts to improve relations with Iran, and Iran's impact on Iraq's political and economic policies is growing. The United States is deeply concerned about this because it worries that Iranian-backed political forces will "hijack" the Iraqi government. U.S. intelligence agencies have also reported that there is a hint of Iran’s shadow behind recent attacks by Iraqi Shiite militants on U.S. troops.

The security situation in Iraq has also become a cause for the extension of U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The United States said that the Iraqi navy and air force are not strong enough to defend the country's territorial waters and air, leaving Iraq's major oil export channels in danger. Both the Iraqi security forces’ active fight against Al-Qaeda and the violent competition between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs for oil fields in the north are still ongoing.

However, Americans are also fully aware of the difficulty in extending the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Gates once said frankly that extending the deadline of the U.S. troops' presence in Iraq is a "political challenge" for Iraqi leaders.

The diplomatic officials of the United States in Baghdad acknowledged that the Iraqi people have great resistance to the extension of the U.S. troops' presence in Iraq. Iraqi anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr enjoys support from Iran and has significant influence in Iraq.

When the Iraqi election in 2010 reached a stalemate, Al-Sadr changed his stance with the consent of Iran and gave critical support to Maliki, helping the latter to become Iraq's prime minister. Followers of Al-Sadr, who hold major positions in the Iraqi government, have threatened to stage an uprising if the U.S. troops continue to stay in Iraq as an "occupier" in 2012. Tens of thousands of Al-Sadr’s followers organized a protest in Baghdad on May 26, demanding that U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as scheduled. The protestors said that if the U.S. troops in Iraq cannot withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, the "Mehdi Army," led by Al-Sadr, will resume its armed resistance.

Given the situation, the issue of whether Iraq will prolong the U.S. troops' presence in the country has become a "fireball" that Iraqi political blocs are unwilling to accept. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Iraq last month to make a quick decision on whether it will request U.S. troops to extend its presence in the country, but he has yet to receive a reply from Iraq. If the United States hastens to impose pressure on Iraq before Iraqi political blocs reach a consensus, it will not only fail in fulfilling its goals but also even deteriorate the political situation at home.

By Wen Xian, editor with People's Daily, translated by People's Daily Online

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