BAGHDAD — Iraq’s political leaders appear set to miss a deadline this weekend for deciding whether to ask U.S. military forces to stay beyond December, according to Iraqi and American officials familiar with negotiations.
President Jalal Talabani has given Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top leaders until Saturday to reach an agreement on what, if any, sustained U.S. military presence Iraq might need. But Maliki and his rivals, beset by other domestic political disputes, remain divided over the matter, including how to formally ask the Obama administration for such an extension, officials said.
With leaders still at an impasse, and despite Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remark last week that Iraqi leaders should “dammit, make a decision,” most U.S. officials say they do not anticipate receiving a formal request from the Iraqis until September, meaning that the roughly 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq remain on course to withdraw by Dec. 31. One senior U.S. military official recently suggested a request might not come until March.
“The later they come, the harder it is to respond to that,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the lead U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said in an interview late last week. If a request were made in March, he said, the United States “has committed to an enduring partnership with Iraq,” but he added that it would be more feasible for Iraqis to ask for help now, “while we have troops here and infrastructure here.”
Since President Obama formally declared the start of Operation New Dawn last September, the U.S. military has shifted from combat missions to training Iraqi forces, conducting joint counterterrorism operations, patrolling Iraq’s skies and providing security for tens of thousands of U.S. diplomats and contractors.
Security for U.S. civilians will shift next year to private security firms, but Maliki and others have suggested that training, air defense and border patrol operations could be part of a new security agreement.
Panetta and other top officials have said the United States is willing to continue such operations, but only if the Iraqis formally request them. Estimates quoted in recent news reports suggest anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 troops would stay on into 2012. Any agreement would have to include guarantees of legal immunity for U.S. forces, according to U.S. officials.
But such legal protections are a non-starter for many Iraqi politicians wary of a prolonged U.S. military presence, and their resistance is complicating Maliki’s attempts to secure a vote on the issue in parliament. The prime minister — managing a fragile political alliance that relies on the support of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — appears to hope that an up-or-down vote on the issue would force his rivals to share in any potential political fallout.
Instead, some Iraqi lawmakers are now pushing Maliki to bypass parliament by having the defense and interior ministries sign new agreements with the U.S. military that would allow training and counterterrorism operations to continue.
“We don’t need to go to parliament, because it can be done under the government authorities,” said Khalid al-Asadi, a legislator from Maliki’s State of Law coalition.
But if the Iraqi military needs more than training and border protection assistance, “we’ll need parliament’s endorsement, which I think would be difficult,” Asadi said.
American officials familiar with the proposal said it is one of several options the Iraqis are discussing but stressed that any agreement will need to include legal immunity for troops.
Other Iraqi lawmakers will not even discuss how to ask the Americans to stay — they simply want them gone. “We need them to leave the country at the end of this year,” said Rafea Abdul Jabbar Nushi, a Sadrist legislator.
“The government tries to find excuses to let them stay under the cover of embassy protectors or as trainers for the security forces, but we reject all of these,” Nushi said.
In far-off southern Basra province, meanwhile, the provincial governor, Khalef Abdul Samed, said any future U.S. military presence should focus only on protecting Iraq’s air space and borders.
“I need the Americans with civilian suits, not military uniforms,” Samed said, saying the United States should turn its efforts to economic investment and rebuilding schools.
After eight years of war, “we wish to have children thinking of education, not of violence,” he said. “We need the Americans’ help with that.”
Alwan is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.