Sunday, April 10, 2011

US to Extend Military Stay in Iraq?

AP's Robert Burns reports on what is hardly a new proposition: that the US make a deal with the Iraq government to leave troops there after the agreed-upon 31 Dec 2011 deadline.  The ever-predictable Lindsey Graham has been calling for it; but Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki rejects the idea out of hand; and Mr. Obama has insisted all along that there would be no extension.

So I'm a bit shocked that during his recent trip to Iraq,  outgoing US SecDef Robert Gates made the following comments about how big a military commitment the U.S. might be willing to make beyond 2011?
"It just depends on what the Iraqis want and what we're able to provide and afford," Gates said Thursday at a U.S. base in the northern city of Mosul where U.S. soldiers advise and mentor Iraqi forces. He said the U.S. would consider a range of possibilities, from staying an extra couple of years to remaining in Iraq as permanent partners.
Is he serious?  Is the Obama team truly thinking about a permanent US presence in Iraq?  Even as Muqtada al-Sadr has promised to call up his Mahdi Army militia in such an eventuality, to resume the anti-US resistance?  Perhaps people in the Pentagon want to call his bluff?

Stupid; truly stupid.  Why?
  • The Mahdi Army fought toe-to-toe with US forces at Najaf in 2004, with major losses to both sides.  And anyone who's read David Finkel's excellent account of the experiences of US soldiers in Baghdad during the Surge (The Good Soldiers) - where the Mahdi Army killed and maimed many of them - knows that if they were to reconstitute, they could make life miserable for any US troop deployment.  And you can bet that they've been nicely resupplied by Iran over the last couple of "peaceful" years in the wake of the American "victory" in Iraq.
  • The al-Maliki government holds power because of the coalition his supporters formed with Sadr's party, which has a massive following both in Baghdad's Shia slums and across Iraq's mostly Shia south.  If Maliki were to accede to an extension of the US presence, Sadr would withdraw his support, fracturing what is already a not-too-stable political situation and raising the possibility of intra-Shia civil war.
Finally, an extension of the US presence would undoubtedly be seen by the Iranian government as a provocation, and would lead Iran to respond by sending even more help to anti-US elements in Iraq.  The chain reaction that would ensue is predictable:
  • more attacks on US forces;
  • McCain-Graham-Lieberman would demand reinsertion of US forces, as well as airstrikes into Iran;
  • Netanyahu (who has simmered down a bit on this score) would likely pull out (for the umpteenth time) his Iran-as-Nazis-and-existential threat card, and call upon the AIPAC/Israel lobby crew to goose Israel's amen chorus in Congress to demand US military intervention against Iran.
The impact that might have, though, in predominantly Shia areas like Lebanon, Bahrain, even eastern Saudi Arabia - and, of course, in southern Iraq - might not be pretty.

Is Iraq likely to unravel some when the US is completely out? Yes.  But the continuing US military presence that seems to be barely holding together a very fragile situation along Arab-Kurd faultlines in northern Iraq is nothing more than a band-aid over a very deep wound that no amount of US medicine, no matter how long applied, is ever going to heal.

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