Contours of a large and lasting American presence in Iraq starting to take shape

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 6:23 PM

BAGHDAD - Despite Iraqi leaders' insistence that the United States meet its end-of-2011 deadline for withdrawing all troops, the contours of a large and lasting American presence here are starting to take shape.

Although a troop extension could still be negotiated, the politics of Iraq's new government make that increasingly unlikely, and the Obama administration has shown little interest in pushing the point.

Instead, planning is underway to turn over to the State Department some of the most prominent symbols of the U.S. role in the war - including several major bases and a significant portion of the Green Zone.

The department would use the bases to house a force of private security contractors and support staff that it expects to triple in size, to between 7,000 and 8,000, U.S. officials said.

Ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iraq will determine the number of contractors and bases, as well as the number of uniformed military personnel the United States hopes to keep here to continue training Iraqi security forces, the officials said.

But the return to Iraq last week of fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes any U.S. military presence in the country, could jeopardize American plans.

Salah al-Obeidi, a Sadr spokesman, said the cleric and his movement oppose all American influences and would have to "study" whether U.S. contractors should be allowed to stay beyond 2011. "The Sadrists refuse with no doubt the existence of these bases," added Rafi Abduljabar Noshi, a Sadrist lawmaker.

Most of the 86 remaining U.S. bases in the country are expected to be turned over to Iraq. Those likely to be transferred to the State Department, including the heavily damaged former palace of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and the former Baath Party headquarters, would be a far cry from the air bases and other military assets that Pentagon planners once envisioned retaining indefinitely as a deterrent to further regional conflicts.

Iraq's newly reelected prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has insisted publicly that the United States must abide by its agreement to leave, prompting U.S. and NATO officials to begin planning other ways for 400 or more military personnel, as well as hundreds of support staff members, to remain in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO training programs in Iraq, said half that number could come from extending the current NATO mission. Maliki has formally asked NATO to begin planning for that possibility, Barbero said, and leaders of Iraqi security forces and NATO officials have expressed support for the idea.

The other half could stay under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy. The 2008 agreement that set this year's deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal allows the State Department to establish an Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, which officials here say they expect to resemble similarly robust U.S. military offices at embassies in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere.

State Department officials have been guarded about how many U.S. military personnel could remain in the country under that plan, but U.S. diplomatic and military experts said it could be 200 or more. As currently envisioned, Barbero said, the NATO training force and U.S. military office would work as one, with the top U.S. military official at the embassy also holding the title of commander of NATO training in Iraq.

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