Despite political uncertainties in Iraq, U.S. sticking with drawdown plan

By Ernesto Londoño and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 14, 2010

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military is on track to draw down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of the summer, but it now faces the long-dreaded prospect that its exit could coincide with a power vacuum similar to the one that drove the country to civil war in 2006.

Approaching what it calls the end of its combat mission in Iraq, the U.S. military will maintain substantial firepower here for the near future. But it will have to adjust to waning resources, influence, mobility and money like never before. And it will be drawing down amid a political standoff in the wake of the March 7 parliamentary elections that has no end in sight.

American commanders are watching the sluggish government formation process closely and warily. The risks are high, with U.S. and Iraqi military commanders expressing fears ranging from a possible resurgence of Shiite militias to the splintering of security forces along sectarian lines.

But the Obama administration has so far stuck to its timeline that calls for a drawdown to 50,000 troops -- roughly half the current total -- by Sept. 1, and the complete pullout of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. It has also disappointed some Iraqis who would like to see Washington play a more assertive role in brokering the political impasse.

"What it does is says, 'We're focused on the door, you're focused on political survival," said Meghan O'Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser for Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. "This increases the possibility that the political stalemate turns into something with long-term negative repercussions."

The U.S. Special Operations footprint will remain largely unchanged after Sept. 1, U.S. officials say, with roughly 4,500 elite troops tasked with targeting terrorist networks in partnership with Iraqi special forces. Their top priorities will include battling weakened Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militias that continue to launch attacks against U.S. troops.

The seven combat brigades that will remain after the summer, temporarily rebranded as "advice and assist brigades," have been reinforced with senior officers who have expertise in training. The military will keep one brigade in Baghdad and one in Anbar province, west of the capital. The remaining five -- each with 3,000 to 5,000 troops -- will be split between northern and southern divisions. Also remaining will be headquarters and certain support personnel. U.S. forces will have a negligible presence in most urban areas, and will be spread thin in southern provinces, where security has improved considerably in recent months.

At the height of the 2007 troop surge, the U.S. military had 20 combat brigades in Iraq -- roughly 170,000 troops -- with the densest concentration in Baghdad and Anbar. It has gradually drawn down to roughly 94,000. The departure of tens of thousands of troops in the coming months -- with most leaving toward the end of summer -- will mark the military's sharpest pullout at any stage of the war, which began with a March 2003 invasion.

American commanders said they would contemplate asking the White House for a delay of the Sept. 1 deadline only if the political process were to collapse completely, a scenario they see as unlikely. But they say they worry that further delay in efforts to create a governing coalition could paralyze basic Iraqi institutions they have spent years trying to jump-start, including the military, police force and justice system.

The March 7 elections produced no clear winner and have led to extensive jockeying among various parties to create a workable government. Among the parties in contention for a place in the new coalition is the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite political faction with close ties to Iran and a large militia. U.S. officials are concerned that it could end up controlling one of the ministries that oversees the army or police.

The Sadrists recently reached a tentative deal to band together with a faction affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form the next government, though sticking points remain.

Although Shiite militias have kept a low profile in recent months, Iraqi and U.S. officials say that could change if political fights escalate, especially if some factions feel left out of the new government. The threat posed by Sunni insurgents has been somewhat reduced in recent months, after the arrests and slayings of dozens of suspected leaders, including the deaths of the top two commanders of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the groups retain the capacity to carry out significant attacks, as they did Monday with strikes that killed dozens across the country.

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