By Aaron C. Davis
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.
Other U.S. military infrastructure could also remain in Iraq. The State Department is negotiating with the Pentagon to have its security contractors assume control of a rocket-detection system that protects the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, military officials said.
The military is expecting the Iraqi government to allow the State Department to take over a large swath of its compound adjacent to Baghdad International Airport where U.S. forces have built a secure passenger terminal and use another building as a VIP waiting area.
The State Department also plans to build consulates in Basra, close to Iraq's major oil fields in the south, and in Irbil, in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in the north, but does not yet have full funding for the projects. Funding for the State Department's full contractor force also remains unclear, and it is not known what, if anything, the Iraqi government may charge the United States to lease or retain the bases.
Hussain Ali Kamal, undersecretary of intelligence for Iraq's Interior Ministry, said that it would not be surprising if the United States retained additional properties in the Green Zone for its staff, adding that he did not think the property or State Department contractors would be significant targets for terrorists if the bases were no longer military compounds.
David Ranz, chief spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, declined to comment on whether the State Department is seeking to retain the two Green Zone bases but said that the United States will shift from helping Iraq rebuild its infrastructure to providing technical assistance to the country's health, education, agriculture and other sectors.
"The U.S. civilian-led presence will look and feel different than the military's," Ranz said.
If the United States does retain the bases, however, some appearances will remain the same. Ugandan, Chilean and other U.S.-paid foreign contractors would probably continue to man gates along the outer concrete walls of the facilities within the Green Zone.
And the prospect of that large, U.S.-funded private security force continuing to operate in Iraq raises sensitive questions. In 2007, guards for then-State Department security contractor Blackwater opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 17 civilians after the guards' convoy reportedly came under fire. At the time, U.S. contractors were immune from Iraqi prosecution.
State Department contractors became subject to Iraqi law in 2009. Those that remain after 2011 are expected to take over much of the support for American diplomats that is now handled by U.S. military personnel.
Critics of the U.S. plan to transition to a civilian-led presence and to withdraw the 48,000 troops stationed here argue that American forces still play a critical psychological role in keeping relative calm. If the U.S. military leaves, they say, Iraq could quickly spiral back into sectarian violence. Even if the country is able to hold together internally, weak air defenses and porous borders could leave it vulnerable to outside forces for several years, critics of the plan say.
"I cannot imagine that this fresh and fragile democratic process can continue without the presence of American troops," said Qassem Dawood, a former Shiite legislator who expects Maliki will ultimately request that some U.S. forces stay.
Sami al-Askari, a lawmaker who is close to Maliki, cautioned that despite the prime minister's public pronouncements, Maliki has made no final decision about an extended U.S. military presence. He said Maliki will carefully weigh his options, including the military need for troops and the political expediency of such a move.
Any broad agreement for an extended U.S. military presence - and, some lawmakers said, even agreements to let the State Department retain real estate or install military advisers - would also require a sign-off from Iraq's untested new government, which includes Sadr supporters.
The decision on whether U.S. forces stay or go is largely considered Maliki's to make, but it's a delicate one, Askari said. "It's not up to Maliki to decide only. We have to look to the others and what impact this will have on the unity government."
"God willing, U.S. troops will leave as planned," said Nassar al-Rubaie, a Sadrist whom Maliki has appointed labor minister. "We don't need the Americans here anymore."
Correspondent Liz Sly and special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Ali Qeis contributed to this report.