Since President Obama declared the end of combat in Iraq last August, Washington has paid less attention to the war that cost the country more than 4,400 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. But with the nation's foreign policy focused on withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing fallout of the Arab Spring uprisings in the region, approximately 46,000 troops remain in Iraq. Whether all of those troops will leave by year's end is still uncertain.
The Obama administration seems to be singing two different tunes when it comes to Iraq. It applauds the end of combat efforts and the imminent full withdrawal, not to mention the baseline savings that will come from decreasing the number of troops there. But on the other hand, there seems to be some desire, and even some persuasive efforts on behalf of the Pentagon, for some U.S. soldiers to stay put.
Naval Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq this week to meet with troops and with Iraqi leaders, whose government continues to weigh a continued U.S. military presence in the country. His message to Iraq's government: We're willing to stick around, but you had better make a decision soon. "Time is quickly running out for us to be able to consider any other course," said Mullen at a press briefing in Baghdad on Tuesday. "My government has made clear that we would entertain a request for some troops to stay. ... In the meantime, we will continue withdrawing our troops on schedule."
According to a security agreement between the United States and Iraq made in 2008, U.S. troops have legal immunity within the country only until Dec. 31, 2011. So, for U.S. troops to stay, they will need a formal request from the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But with lots of internal opposition to the U.S. troop presence and the Iraqi government's own slew of legislative tensions, the possibility of that request has been diminishing. Still, as he wrapped up his trip Tuesday, Mullen told reporters that he was "encouraged to learn last night that Iraqi leaders plan to meet to discuss the merits of such a request."
One argument for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is the increasing threat of its neighbor Iran. According to Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonpartisan think-tank, without U.S. military support, Iran's position in the region could become stronger. It's unclear whether Iraqi security forces alone can protect the country from external or internal threats. In addition, the future of Iraq's economy will depend partly on the security of its oil terminals in the south that are very close to the border with Iran. "The Iranian regime continues to violate Iraq's sovereignty by intervening in Iraqi social and political affairs, training and equipping militants to conduct attacks on Iraqi soil, and thwarting efforts by the Iraqi people to pursue unfettered economic growth, develop in independence the geography and democracy that's bestowed upon them," said Mullen on Tuesday.
Security within Iraq's borders has indeed been a concern as the frequency of violent attacks spiked earlier this summer. For U.S. servicemembers, June marked the deadliest month in more than two years after 14 were killed. Reports from Iraq also claimed that civilian deaths were at a yearly high during July. Also, last week's quarterly report from Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, suggested that violence had indeed increased within the past year as U.S. troops planned their departure. "Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work," wrote Bowen. "It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago."
That said, the conditions on the ground have improved significantly since the height of the conflict. "In 2007, we had 145 incidents a day on average, with some days up over 200 incidents," Army Gen. Lloyd Austin told reporters in Iraq on Monday, according to the American Forces Press Service. "Look at where we are today, averaging around 14.5 incidents per day. That's a tremendous change over the years, and the trends have continued to head in the right direction."