The deadline for troop withdrawal in Iraq is approaching at the end of the year, but calls from military leaders and people within Iraq have minimized the chances that all U.S. soldiers will actually leave.
According to a 2008 security agreement between the United States and Iraq, all of the current 45,000 U.S. troops should be out of the country by Dec. 31, 2011. But even though no U.S. troops were killed in Iraq in August, the country remains plagued by internal violence. Last month, at least 70 Iraqis were killed in a single day, as suicide bombings, roadside explosions, and shootings swept across the country. Many have said that such strife is evidence of the work to still be done in Iraq before the America ends its presence there.
The prospect of a full withdrawal is particularly daunting for Kurds in the north, who fear that the ethnic cleansing and sectarian violence of the past will be intensified if American forces leave. Recent tensions with Turkey and subsequent attacks have made Kurds even less confident in their political future and skeptical that peace will come quickly. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, made a televised appeal Tuesday, urging U.S. troops to stay past the Dec. 31 deadline because the Iraqi military is still not powerful or cohesive enough. “If the American forces withdraw, there will be a possibility of civil war,” he said.
The Iraqi government must formally request for the United States to stay beyond the deadline, according to the 2008 agreement. Despite the Kurdish worries, an extension of U.S. troop presence is unpopular among most Iraqis, so leaders have so far been reluctant to make a firm decision.
The question is also eliciting strong reactions here at home, where millions of Americans believe the war was unnecessary and unjust. While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that discussions are ongoing, rumors about decreasing troop levels have already elicited strong reactions. Fox News cited anonymous sources in saying that Obama will reduce the presence to 3,000 troops at the end of the year. According to the report, generals on the ground believe such a low number will pose significant challenges to maintaining peace in Iraq.
The extent of Iraq troop withdrawals this year is critical to Obama’s reelection hopes. Back in 2008, he set himself apart from the other Democratic presidential hopefuls by highlighting his opposition to the Iraq War and his commitment, if elected, to complete troop withdrawal. The president officially ended combat operations in Iraq last year, and he reasserted his commitment to bringing all troops home by the end of 2011.
Now Obama must decide whether to maintain a military presence in Iraq and jeopardize his already-waning support from anti-war progressives. If the 3,000 troops number is true, it reflects how torn the administration is about keeping American forces there: The number is basically as close to zero as Obama could get without fully pulling out and risking the potential chaos of which generals and Kurds have warned. The Iraq troop withdrawal debate might end up as another one of the president’s efforts to please both sides with a compromise that, in the end, leaves everyone dissatisfied.