Iraq weighs if US troops should stay after 8 years

The Associated Press
Friday, March 18, 2011; 10:30 AM

BAGHDAD -- The American invasion of Iraq was supposed to take only a few months: a quick blitz to depose dictator Saddam Hussein, find and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and go home.

Eight years later, thousands of U.S. troops remain in Iraq - and their mission may not be accomplished until far into the future.

Despite a security agreement requiring a full U.S. military withdrawal by the year's end, hundreds if not thousands of American soldiers will continue to be in Iraq beyond 2011.

Just how many will stay is the heart of a tense and hushed debate among U.S. and Iraqi officials who want the fragile democracy to stand alone for the first time since the U.S.-led war began on March 20, 2003 - but fear it could fall apart without military support.

"Nobody wants foreign forces in his country, but sometimes the situation on the ground has the final say on such matters," said Sunni lawmaker Yassin al-Mutlaq in an interview this week. "Right now, nobody can decide."

There are about 47,000 American troops in Iraq now, down from an October 2007 peak of 166,000. As of this week, 4,439 U.S. forces have been killed and the war has cost taxpayers more than $750 billion.

U.S. military officials and Western diplomats in Baghdad say the number of troops now being considered to stay ranges from a few hundred, who would work under the U.S. Embassy, to the tens of thousands, likely clustered in bases far off the beaten path where they will have little interaction with Iraqi civilians.

A senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the U.S. is quietly suggesting to Iraqi officials that up to 20,000 troops stay. The adviser spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, and American officials repeatedly have refused to discuss how many troops might remain if Iraq asks for a continued large force.

The troop quandary underscores what has become a political game of chicken between Baghdad and Washington.

Both al-Maliki, who barely won a second term last year, and President Barack Obama, who faces re-election in 2012, would face a political disaster with their base supporters if they agree to keep thousands of U.S. forces in Iraq beyond Dec. 31. Obama, a Democrat, also is grappling with a Republican House that is more keen on budget-cutting than war-fighting than in years past.

Yet neither al-Maliki nor Obama want to be blamed for losing the war if Iraq is overrun by widespread insurgent attacks or sectarian fighting after U.S. troops leave.

Violence has dropped sharply from just a few years ago, when scores of people were killed each day in the tit-for-tat battles between Iraq's Muslim Shiite majority and former Sunni ruling class that brought the country to the brink of civil war. But deadly bombings and shootings continue daily, and danger zones remain in the capital, in ethnically mixed cities in the north and at religious shrines in the south that attract pilgrims and tourists.

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