(New York Times) - BAGHDAD — The United States’ senior military official warned the Iraqi government on Friday that it had only a few weeks to decide whether American forces would remain after the end of the year.
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDTand TIM ARANGO
Published: April 22, 2011
The official, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were “irrevocable logistics and operational decisions” that had to be made by the United States before the withdrawal of forces was scheduled to accelerate.
“For the withdrawal, there’s what I call a physics problem,” Admiral Mullen said at a news conference at Camp Victory, the sprawling American base here. “We have 47,000 troops here, lots of equipment, and physically it just takes time to move them.”
He said, “Time is running short for any negotiations to occur.”
Admiral Mullen made his statements after meeting with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and high-ranking Iraqi military officials on Thursday. He said that there had been no formal discussions about United States forces remaining here.
“Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some U.S. troops to stay, I am certain my government will welcome that dialogue,” he said.
The United States and Iraq agreed in 2008 that all American U.S. forces would leave by the end of this year.
Since the agreement, violence has decreased significantly, and Iraqi security forces have taken over patrolling the streets. But the Iraqis still lack the capacity to defend their borders and airspace, and they rely heavily on the American forces for intelligence sharing and training.
Independent military analysts and officials of both countries believe that if all American forces leave as scheduled, it could threaten security in Iraq, where there are daily explosions and where ethnic tensions remain high. A continued American military presence could also serve as a counterbalance to Iran, which has significant influence here.
Complicating matters are plans for the State Department to have a huge presence in Iraq after the end of this year. There are many questions among policymakers in Washington about whether the State Department can operate here without the logistical support and protection of the American military. The State Department is planning to roughly double its size in Iraq, to about 16,000 people, and it will require an army of private contractors to protect its personnel.
When the leaders of the United States and Iraq negotiated the agreement in 2008, the timetable was primarily created so that Iraqi political leaders could show their constituencies that they were taking a stand against the long-term presence of American troops. It was understood by both parties at the time that Iraq’s security forces would not be ready to defend the country by 2011, and that a new deal would be needed.
But since then, domestic politics in both countries have made it difficult for American troops to stay on beyond this year, even as military leaders on both sides acknowledge that Iraq’s security forces are not ready to defend the country on their own.
President Obama rose to national prominence opposing the Iraq war, and in his recent public comments, like his State of the Union address and his recent speech on Libya, he has emphasized that American troops will be leaving Iraq.
In Baghdad, Mr. Maliki has to contend with constituencies and coalition partners who oppose the United States’ presence. Moktada al-Sadr, the radical and anti-American Shiite cleric, for one, has vowed to renew insurgent warfare if American soldiers stay.
Mr. Sadr, whose Mahdi Army twice fought significant battles with American and coalition forces, became a prominent political player in Iraq after candidates loyal to him won 39 seats in last year’s parliamentary election.
“Sadr has been a significant complicating factor in Iraq for a long period of time,” Admiral Mullen said.
Referring to Mr. Sadr’s threat against American forces if they remain beyond this year, Admiral Mullen said: “Iraq has seen more than its fair share of violence and death. So I think a statement like that is irresponsible in terms of taking care of Iraqi citizens in the future.
“And obviously it will take the political leadership here in Iraq from every single party to come together to make sure that Iraq is stable and better for the Iraqi people and not return to the violence, which has been so devastating in recent years.”