Middle East

Why Obama's Iraq plan will not change

US troops in Kerbala, Iraq, 11 Aug 2010
Image caption US troops expect an increase in militant attacks as the withdrawal nears

Iraq's army commander has questioned the wisdom of a full US withdrawal by the end of 2011 - but this is unlikely to sway President Barack Obama.

The president has already reaffirmed his commitment to the agreement reached by President George W Bush with the Iraqi government - that all US troops would be gone by the end of 2011.

"We will maintain a transitional force until we remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of next year," he said on 2 August.

He also re-stated his own campaign commitment that "by August 31st, 2010, America's combat mission in Iraq [will] end."

It is unlikely, therefore, that he will change this policy. It was well received by the audience of veterans to whom he spoke. It was announced after consultation with US commanders in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the comment by the Iraqi commander, Lt Gen Babaker Zebari, is something of an embarrassment to the administration because it raises doubts that will have to be quashed by events that are, to an extent, unpredictable.

Gen Zebari said: "At this point the withdrawal is going well, because they [US troops] are still here. But the problem will start after 2011. The politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011. If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: 'The US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.'"

This is not what the general apparently thought in January 2007 (that is, before the surge) when he was chief of staff. During a visit to the US military he reportedly said that most American troops could leave by 2008. Maybe he has been chastened by the top command and, as a former Kurdish guerrilla commander, he knows that military situations ebb and flow, and call for constant adjustments.

Nothing short of civil war

But adjustment is not what President Obama wants. There are no detailed benchmarks for the US withdrawal, unlike the conditions set for the surge in US troops in 2007.

The withdrawal is not benchmark-led. It is based on the domestic political requirements in the US and on assessments that it can work.

The only situation to challenge it would be civil war. Increased violence in terms of bombings and shootings will not stop it.

But there is no doubt that many US observers are worried, especially at the failure of political leaders to form a government after the elections back in March.

Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and Clinton administration official (and supporter of the war against Iraq in 2003), said at the Brookings Institution in July: "The big question mark out there is the Iraqi political process.

"Right now I am concerned that by December 2011... the Iraqi political process will not be stable or mature enough to handle a complete withdrawal of US troops.

"The insurgents really are flat on their backs. They can kill people here and there, but they can't mobilise enough force to really threaten one of the other communities. I suspect that the military will be able to keep the insurgency at this level if the political process makes progress. But that is the key."

There are some hopes that the political deadlock might be resolved soon. The outgoing US Ambassador, Christopher Hill, said on Wednesday: "Things may be heading in the right direction."

'Dangerous tasks' remain

Between the end of August this year and the end of December next year, US forces (50,000 of them, at least to start with) will still be in Iraq. And their mission will in fact still include combat, as President Obama indicated in his speech.

"During this period, our forces will have a focused mission - supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counter-terrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts," he said. "These are dangerous tasks."

Note that the language is carefully chosen. It is not that the troops are ending "combat", it is that their combat "mission" has changed. No wonder that the president also warned: "The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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