Following President Obama’s promise that all American troops will be home from Iraq by Christmas time, there have been numerous misconceptions circulated in media reports about what is precisely going on regarding the U.S. withdrawal.
To begin with, there is a widespread notion that, in the words of one report in the Guardian, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “[h]ad wanted to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq. … But he had to bow to pressure from pro-Iranian politicians and others in his coalition government who wanted all U.S. troops out.”
These remarks are highly misleading, to put it mildly.
Here is what actually transpired: the U.S. military had for quite some time been intent on keeping between ten to twenty thousand troops in the country beyond the withdrawal deadline stipulated in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) originally drawn up between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government.
However, with the exception of the Kurdish parties, all Iraqi political factions were opposed to this idea from the start, including al-Maliki and his State of Law bloc.
Nonetheless, in August, Iraq’s various parties — excluding the followers of the pro-Iran Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — held a meeting and agreed in principle on the idea of allowing a few thousand American soldiers to stay beyond the SOFA deadline and provide additional training for the Iraqi security forces.
The two reasons behind this desire for further American training are that the Iraqi military is seen as incapable of defending the country from foreign threats and that there is a lack of Iraqi know-how on the use of advanced weaponry, such as fighter jets, which the military has recently been purchasing. In fact, the Iraqi military estimates that further training will be needed until at least 2020.
The Iraqi politicians also agreed, however, on the condition that American troops should not be granted immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, primarily because of memories of U.S. abuses like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
This principle was reaffirmed in another meeting in October (again, excluding the Sadrists). In any case, the primary purpose of the October meeting was not to discuss the impending U.S. withdrawal, but to try (unsuccessfully, as usual) to resolve the problems in forming the Iraqi government, a process that’s been going on since the March 2010 elections.
The debate over immunity has proven to be the main obstacle in negotiations between Washington and Baghdad regarding keeping troops beyond 2011. It was an Iraqi consensus nationalist position and not any pro-Iranian opposition to the U.S. presence that proved the stumbling block.
Even given all these issues, however, it is not necessarily true that no U.S. troops will remain on Iraqi soil after December 31. Iraq and the United States still agree on American soldiers remaining to train Iraqi security forces. General Babakir Zebari, the Iraqi army’s chief of staff; al-Maliki; and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have all issued statements to this effect.
Thus, despite the initial failure of talks, there is still a significant chance of a small contingent force of a few hundred troops — rather than a few thousand — staying as “trainers.”
Discussion is still taking place as the Iraqi government and the Obama administration try to find a compromise for a loophole on the immunity issues. U.S. soldiers would not have immunity status but trainers would get it by technically working for the State Department or NATO, which already has a 200-member training mission that will stay at least until 2013.
And if this solution fails, Iraq will probably hire ex-U.S. soldiers as civilian contractors to provide further training.
In light of all the misreporting in the media on these happenings, the most important point is that Iraq is setting the terms of its relationship with the United States as a sovereign nation, and is not acting at the behest of a foreign power, namely Iran.
Iran’s government has had no role in influencing the Iraqi political factions’ stances on the troop extension. In short, Baghdad is simply doing whatever it wants. A key underlying principle is simply this: Iraq doesn’t want to be either too dependent on the United States or on Iran.
The Iraqi government will use the United States to ensure its sovereignty vis-à-vis Iran while insisting on showing that it isn’t a U.S. protectorate. This strategy is likely to work and is not only in Iraq’s but also in the U.S. interest.
More from Michael Totten: Did We Lose in Iraq? No, and Here’s Why