Fox News is reporting that the Obama administration plans to withdraw all but about 3,000 of the more than 40,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, a move that is consistent with President Barack Obama’s repeated promises to end the war in Iraq. Sources told Fox that the number of troops begrudgingly approved by the military — 10,000 troops — would be cut even further, likely allowing the U.S. to carry out mostly training missions.
The reported decision comes after months of fruitless back-and-forth with the Iraqi government on an agreement to allow American troops to stay. A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by the outgoing Bush administration in 2008 pledged to the Iraqis that the U.S. would withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2011. Without a new SOFA, all U.S. troops might still have to exit Iraq, potentially rendering the U.S. decision moot.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s most recent public statement on the issue — that the U.S. troop pullout would be “on schedule” — didn’t mention the possibility that U.S. trainers could stay behind. But Maliki has mentioned the notion before. Some Iraqi lawmakers said U.S. diplomatic cables recently revealed by Wikileaks describing U.S. involvement in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians made negotiations to keep troops there more difficult.
The Fox report comes on the heels of a Wall Street Journal article this morning highlighting American attempts to covertly counter growing Iranian influence in Iraq, where Shia links run deep. U.S. officials have repeatedly linked Iranian arms to attacks on U.S. troops. The Journal report said the impending drawdown “compound(ed) the urgency” of covert programs. Using U.S. troops to counter Iranian influence, though, could be a never-ending mission.
While no Americans died in Iraq last month, a first since the start of the war, the U.S. faced a steep rise in casualties in recent months, with some analysts suggesting the attacks could be a result of the public pressure the U.S. was exerting for a new SOFA.
Obama, though, remained undeterred by various conservative criticisms that the U.S. should stay in Iraq to support Maliki against Sadr, or that withdrawing could open the door to a re-invigorated insurgency and Iraq “could go to hell.”
Those fears are not shared by U.S. diplomatic and military spokespersons. In July, a State Department spokesman in Baghdad said the U.S. was “confident that Iraqi security forces’ capacity will continue to grow.” Last month, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said that Iraqi security forces could handle the insurgency when the U.S. withdraws.