Over the past few months there has been increasing talk in both Washington and Baghdad regarding the U.S. troop presence in the country past the end of 2011. Earlier in the month U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Iraq and seemed all too happy to bring up the possibility of an extension for a U.S. armed presence on the ground. In a Wall Street Journal article released today, it was revealed that U.S. officials have been in talks with their Iraqi counterparts regarding the retention of a small number of U.S. troops that would remain in place after the December 31st deadline.
For their part, Iraqi officials remain outwardly defiant in the press and pledge that Iraqi security forces are completely capable of protecting Iraq’s population after U.S. troops withdraw. Just yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki reasserted this claim to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.
Iraq leaders have been walking a fine line regarding this process, as has been reported by The National:
Asking American forces to stay past 2011 would be politically risky for al-Maliki, whose closest allies in government are the virulently anti-American followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shiite cleric, who spends much of his time in neighboring Iran, has threatened violence if American troops stay in Iraq
Although many are concerned with continued violence in Iraq, many also fear that Sadr, who demobilized his Mahdi Army in 2008 and has since joined Iraq’s political process, could easily reconstitute it on a whim if he wanted. The repercussions of this could have any security gains Iraq has seen over the past few years abruptly reverse.
There is no doubt that Sadr still has a large following and can bring huge crowds. Upon his brief return to Iraq in January, tens of thousands of Iraqis showed up to see him speak as he denounced the U.S. Since that time, Sadr has turned up the rhetorical heat and sought to co-opt Iraqis on a number of issues, including highlighting the inadequacies of the Iraqi government, which he is now a large part of. His biggest scorn however, has always been directed at the U.S. presence in the country.
In recent weeks Mahdi Army graffiti has again been showing up in Baghdad, leading to rising fears and suspicions among the populace. Sadrist leaders have also threatened to unleash the Mahdi Army once again if the U.S. withdrawal is not completed. The National has also reported that “US forces would not be the only targets. “Disloyal” Iraqis who were assisting American troops would also be singled out.” These Iraqis are a very vulnerable population who have been targeted by both Sunni and Shia extremists in the past, including the Mahdi Army.
Others feel that while the rhetoric may be strong, Sadr is simply using the threats as political capital in order to appease his supporters as well as move government officials towards his bloc regarding the troop issue. As the Khaleej Times reports, Sadr can potentially use the political method more easily and with less risk to himself:
“He is the cornerstone of this government,” Baghdad University professor Hakeem Mezher said. “If he walks out on this fragile alliance, it will encourage other blocs to do the same. Such a step will definitely collapse the government, or at least it will be considered illegitimate to sign any new pact.”
This is something to definitely keep in mind as U.S. withdrawal nears. Leaders in Washington and Baghdad will no doubt take notice.