Iraq’s Government, Not Obama, Called Time on the U.S. Troop Presence

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A file photo dated 22 June 2011 shows a US soldier (C) taking out the American flag as US Army personnel is preparing to leave Mendin military base in the Iraq-Iran borders, southern Iraq. (Haider Al-Assadee / EPA)

President Barack Obama’s announcement on Friday that all 40,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq will leave the country by New Year’s Eve will, inevitably, draw howls of derision from GOP presidential hopefuls — this is, after all, early election season. But the decision to leave Iraq by that date was not actually taken by President Obama — it was taken by President George W. Bush, and by the Iraqi government. 

In one of his final acts in office, President Bush in December of 2008 had signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government that set the clock ticking on ending the war he’d launched in March of 2003. The SOFA provided a legal basis for the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq after the United Nations Security Council mandate for the occupation mission expired at the end of 2008. But it required that all U.S. forces be  gone from Iraq by January 1, 2012, unless the Iraqi government was willing to negotiate a new agreement that would extend their mandate. And as Middle East historian Juan Cole has noted, “Bush had to sign what the [Iraqi] parliament gave him or face the prospect that U.S. troops would have to leave by 31 December, 2008, something that would have been interpreted as a defeat… Bush and his generals clearly expected, however, that over time Washington would be able to wriggle out of the treaty and would find a way to keep a division or so in Iraq past that deadline.”

But ending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was an overwhelmingly popular demand among Iraqis, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appears to have been unwilling to take the political risk of extending it. While he was inclined to see a small number of American soldiers stay behind to continue mentoring Iraqi forces, the likes of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, on whose support Maliki’s ruling coalition depends, were having none of it. Even the Obama Administration’s plan to keep some 3,000 trainers behind failed because the Iraqis were unwilling to grant them the legal immunity from local prosecution that is common to SOF agreements in most countries where U.S. forces are based.

So, while U.S. commanders would have liked to have kept a division or more behind in Iraq to face any contingencies — and, increasingly, Administration figures had begun citing the challenge of Iran, next door — it was Iraqi democracy that put the kibosh on that goal. The Bush Administration had agreed in 2004 to restore Iraqi sovereignty, and in 2005 put the country’s elected government in charge of shaping its destiny. But President Bush hadn’t anticipated that Iraqi democracy would see pro-U.S. parties sidelined and would, instead, consistently return governments closer to Tehran than they are to Washington. Contra expectations, a democratic Iraq has turned out to be at odds with much of U.S. regional strategy — first and foremost its campaign to isolate Iran.

The Iraq that U.S. forces will leave behind is far from stable, and the mounting tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia could well see a renewed flare-up of Iraq’s disastrous sectarian civil war. A jihadist Sunni insurgency has reasserted itself in recent months with a steady uptick in terror attacks, and it could become a vehicle for Saudi proxy warfare against Iran, which backs the Maliki government and various Shi’ite political and military formations, including Sadr’s. Kurdish-Arab tensions are growing in the north, where the fate of such contested cities as Kirkuk remains unresolved and a source of mounting security danger. Iraq’s political future, also, remains contested, with sectarian and ethnic rivalries reflected in the continued failure to pass a low regulating the sharing of oil revenues, and mounting anxiety over the increasingly authoritarian approach of Prime Minister Maliki.

Iraq could yet fail as a state. But it’s not as if the presence of 40,000 U.S. troops has been all that’s holding it together: Those forces no longer patrol Iraq’s cities, and are mostly involved in mentoring Iraqi units, although they have played a major role in mediating Arab-Kurdish conflicts in the north.

Given the unresolved political conflicts that continue to plague the country even after its transition to democratic government — and in light of the rising levels of regional tension — chances are high that the U.S. withdrawal will be preceded and followed by a sharp uptick in violence. Shi’ite insurgent groups are likely to escalate attacks on U.S. forces, hoping to claim credit for driving out the Americans — and, no doubt, to please their Iranian backers. Sunni insurgent groups are likely to raise their own game, in order to challenge the Shi’ite dominated government and demonstrate its inability to ensure security — an exercise that will suit the agenda of their own backers.

The key to ensuring security after a U.S. withdrawal has always been achieving a regional consensus on Iraq that could set the terms for political compromise inside Iraq — or, at least, limit the likelihood of renewed violence. Unfortunately, instead, that withdrawal coincides with a sharp escalation in the Saudi-Iranian cold war, and that will spell trouble for Iraq.

Not that the U.S. will be out of the picture, by any stretch of the imagination. As things stand, the U.S. embassy in Iraq will have 17,000 employees — including at least 5,000 “security contractors”, i.e. non-uniformed military personnel. It’s not hard to imagine that future training needs of the Iraqi military will be undertaken by privateers rather than under the auspices of the Pentagon. And that the CIA — now under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, former U.S. commander in Iraq — will play a more active role in pursuing U.S. objectives on the ground and in the neighborhood.

But as of December 31, no more American soldiers will be doing tours of duty in Iraq. The war that ousted Saddam Hussein, unleashing an insurgency that left 4,500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, and which will cost the U.S. upwards of $1 trillion, is finally over. Historians will note that the U.S. invasion of Iraq precipitated dramatic changes across the Middle East political landscape in the ensuing decade. But many of those changes were hardly the ones the war’s authors had in mind.

15 comments
3tsand2ms
3tsand2ms

Yes. .. Of course! Leave it to TIME to try & get their guy off the hook. Any sensible person not only realizès what's going on here but REFUSES to accept the BS narrative that they are slinging. Problem is... we're lacking in sensible people in this Country as of late

RubyWalterClemente
RubyWalterClemente

11:39 AM

Presidential candidate Barack Obama said Wednesday that he and other leading congressional Democrats were seeking ways to “ratchet up the pressure” on President Bush to set a timetable to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

“The American people have said ‘enough,’” Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, said in an interview with NBC News’ David Gregory on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll indicates that a majority of Americans believed going to war in Iraq was a mistake.

The House and the Senate have passed different versions of bills to fund the military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which seek to limit the U.S. deployment. The Senate version would urge, but not mandate, that most troops be withdrawn by March 31, while the House version would set a hard deadline to pull them out by Sept. 1, 2008.

MikeAlan
MikeAlan

Then why was Obama taking credit for ending the war?

RoachRoach3
RoachRoach3

LOL LOL.. so once again President Obama is trying to rewrite history. It wasn't that long ago VP Joe Biden.. Obama's lap dog.. was bragging how Iraq was the Obama's administration's "greatest success". Of course, Ol' Joe was trying to ride the relative calm created by Bush at the time. But my, my, look how things have turned for Obama and Joe. 


It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.

NancyWelliverHulbert
NancyWelliverHulbert

Time must be supporting Obama because this story is only half true, Obama said as early as 2007 while a Senator that it should be done. You morons need to read your own history. Obama voted to pull troops while he was campaigning for the presidency dumb ass.

danrobin57
danrobin57

Then when we turned it right back over to consumers they would have a civilization what would definitely search more like Dubai or Kuwait than what it looks like today. They would need by subsequently fifteen billion barrels of oil flowing out per year, as well as all the money they needed in order to maintain your strong army for defense, plus a stable society and federal government. If that would've happened, I need zero doubt that the lots of sects would have gotten along, and enjoyed financial prosperity. http://www.primeblog.us/2013/07/unique-bootcamp-workouts.html

ickysdad
ickysdad

@RoachRoach3 Oh one other thing it seems this article just states Obama announcing the with drawl by 12/31/2011 it doesn't say he is taking credit does it? You think if McCain would have won in 2008 he might just of had a press conference making the same announcement?

ickysdad
ickysdad

@RoachRoach3 Well all presidents try to rewrite history for that matter or take credit for things they really had no part in.....I remember 4 years(August,2010) ago some GOP posters on another forum telling some Democrat posters that Obama couldn't take credit for troops being pulled out of Iraq because Bush had done negotiated it. OH but now with ISIS taking over large parts of Iraq some of these same posters on said forum,along with politicians one is hearing in the media, are saying Obama screwed the pooch by pulling troops out according to the Status of Forces Agreement .


Oh by the way what do you mean by the ' riding out the calm created by Bush at the time" ????. You think maybe some of what's happening in Iraq isn't because of decisions made by Bush? Wasn't the current president of Iraq originally put in power by a governor appointed by Bush?

Mrhahn82
Mrhahn82

@AntioneFields I'm also to going to argue about Bush references, just stating the fact of the sofa being signed before Obama took office

Mrhahn82
Mrhahn82

@AntioneFields I can also show you the official document, and I was in the military at the time, & was briefed on it before Obama was pres

ickysdad
ickysdad

@RoachRoach3 I agree politicians will sometimes take credit for something that actually was the result of somebody's else work and sometimes it may come back to bite them but the biggest mistake was ever going into Iraq in the first place that certainly wasn't anything Obama had anything to do with.