Iraqi Leaders Urge U.S. Against Extending Troop Presence

The U.S. military presence is deeply unpopular here, but Obama's plan to withdrawal all forces has been met with opposition in Washington

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Iraqi political leaders Ayyad Allawi and Moqtada al-Sadr / Reuters

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi is one of the most pro-American politicians in this country and has had a warm, decades-long relationship with the Pentagon and the CIA. He believes Iraq's security forces will be incapable of protecting the country without sustained foreign assistance.

But you won't hear him call for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the end of the year, when the U.S. military is expected to fully draw down its presence unless Washington and Baghdad negotiate an extension.

"We have serious security problems in this country and serious political problems," Allawi said in an interview at his heavily guarded compound here. "Keeping Americans in Iraq longer isn't the answer to the problems of Iraq. It may be an answer to the problems of the U.S., but it's definitely not the solution to the problems of my country."

With U.S. troops streaming out of Iraq by the thousands, the unpopular American-led war here is finally drawing to a close. Under the terms of a 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington, all of the roughly 45,000 troops who remain in Iraq are slated to withdraw by the end of the year.

"I will say it frankly: If the American soldiers stay, even one, we will fight them with force, with our militias and our brigades"

The two governments are negotiating whether a few thousand U.S. troops should remain in Iraq past the deadline, a possibility that has triggered fierce political squabbling in both countries.

But the debate is playing out very differently in the two capitals, highlighting a sharp disconnect between the two governments on a key aspect of the war's future and offering a vivid illustration of Washington's rapidly diminishing political influence here.

In Baghdad, a city that continues to bear the scars of eight years of military force, terror attacks, and sectarian violence, politicians from across Iraq's political spectrum either openly call for a full American pullout or offer, like Allawi, tepid backing for an extension.

The U.S. military presence is deeply unpopular and Western diplomats say Iraqi public opinion is even more anti-American now because many Iraqis fear that the presence of U.S. troops in the country past the end of the year would trigger new attacks by Shiite and Sunni militants.

In Washington, by contrast, politicians from both parties talk as if the Obama administration could leave as many troops in Iraq as it would like. The wishes of the Iraqi government rarely enter into the conversation.

The disconnect burst into the open earlier this month when White House officials confirmed they were considering asking Baghdad to allow 3,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the end of the year, a plan which would result in Washington leaving behind just a small fraction of the 10,000 to 15,000 troops senior American military officials recommend.

Reports of the plan sparked a political firestorm in Washington, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina arguing that such a small force would be a "formula for disaster" because it would jeopardize hard-fought security gains in Iraq.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered similar criticism and said leaving behind a 3,000-person force would be a "mistake" because Iraq was not yet fully secure.

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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