By LARA JAKES
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.
Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo said al-Qaida and former Baathists who led Saddam's regime are likely to launch "big attacks in order to shake the government and show its weakness" after American troops withdraw.
"I expect that Iraq will face a security tsunami," Jalo said. "On the other hand, if the U.S. forces stay after 2011, al-Maliki will face a problem of a different kind. Any such move will anger his traditional Shiite allies, as well as Iran and Syria. Now and later, al-Maliki cannot afford the wrath of these three supporters."
Like Congress, Iraq's parliament is torn over whether the troops should stay. In Baghdad, al-Maliki advisers say he is considering pushing the decision to the legislature to give himself political cover.
Chief among al-Maliki's concerns is vehement opposition by the Shiite religious hardline followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who demanded as recently as Tuesday for the U.S. "occupiers" to leave on schedule or face potential retaliation.
The senior al-Maliki adviser said the Shiite prime minister ultimately may approve continued U.S. troops, but require the 325-seat parliament to ratify his move by a two-thirds majority. Achieving that vote margin would be all but impossible in the face of the Iranian-linked Sadrist opposition.
"We strongly refuse any extension of the U.S. military staying in Iraq, and I personally will work from within to prevent it from happening," said Sadrist lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on parliament's national security committee. "Our problems are because of the very presence of the invaders."
Still, the government acknowledges that it cannot protect itself from foreign threats. Last summer, Iraqi military commander Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari predicted the country will need allied air support - including fighter jets and spy planes - for another decade before the nation's air force is able to defend its borders.
Al-Maliki's decision last month to delay the purchase of 18 U.S. F-16 fighter jets, and spend the money on food rations for Iraq's poor, fueled new speculation he plans to ask thousands of American pilots and soldiers to stay.
Kurdish lawmaker Ashwak al-Jaf said Iraqi forces are still unprepared to protect the nation - largely because they appear to be loyal to political and sectarian allegiances instead of the entire country. The U.S. has spent more than $22 billion since 2004 to train and equip Iraq's security forces.
"I see the American presence as the safety valve," she said in an interview this week. "Their presence is an absolute must to ensure security. We will vote for the U.S. military to stay."
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey has predicted that no more than several hundred active-duty troops and other Defense Department employees will remain in Iraq beyond this year as part of a security office run by the American Embassy in Baghdad. Their mission will be to continue training and otherwise helping Iraqi forces with logistics, such as buying and maintaining military equipment.
But for anything beyond that, Washington insists the Iraqis must ask. Already, U.S. forces in Iraq are packing up and preparing to leave.
"This government is very open to a continuing presence that would be larger where we could help the Iraqis for a period of time," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a House panel last month.
But, he added: "Our presence is not popular in Iraq. I think the (Iraqi) leaders understand the need for this kind of help, but no one wants to be the first one out there supporting it. So we will continue that dialogue. But at the end of the day, the initiative has to come from the Iraqis. They have to ask for it."
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Ahmed Sami Fattah in Baghdad, Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS date in third paragraph to 2011).)