Washington and Baghdad divided over future U.S. presence

BAGHDAD -- 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.

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.

The two lawmakers, backed by numerous colleagues from their respective parties, urged President Obama to leave a larger troop presence behind in Iraq. But lost in all this is the simple fact that any troop extension, regardless of size, will be unacceptable to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his government.

Maliki is under growing political pressure from two of the most important allies in his fragile parliamentary coalition, the Sadr Front and the Islamic Surpreme Council of Iraq.

Both Shiite parties staunchly oppose any extension and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has openly threatened new attacks on U.S. targets if there isn't a full withdrawal.

"I will say it frankly: If the American soldiers stay, even one, we will fight them with force, with our militias and our brigades," Jawad al-Shihaily, a Sadrist lawmaker, said in an interview here.

"The Sadr movement will not accept any of the Americans staying, not for training, not for logistics, and not for protecting the air of Iraq. They will leave or we will force them out."

Maliki also faces pressure from unexpected sources like Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker considered one of the most pro-American members of parliament. In an interview, Othman said his own thinking had shifted in recent weeks as the debate over the troop extension dragged on.

"Personally, I no longer want them to stay," Othman said. "It's been eight years. I don't think having Americans stay in Iraq will improve the situation at all. Leaving would be better for them and for us. It's time for us to go our separate ways."

Maliki himself keeps his cards close to his vest. In an interview on al-Ittijah television earlier this month, he said all U.S. troops would leave Iraq "on schedule by the end of the year."

A senior Maliki aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the internal discussions, said the premier believed Iraq needed a minimal number of American troops to remain here past the end of the year.

But the aide said Maliki was unlikely to make a formal request unless he has clearer political support from the country's other major parties. So far, only the main Kurdish bloc has been willing to publicly call for extending the American troop presence, with Massoud Barzani, the head of the quasi-independent Kurdish Regional Government, warning a few days ago that a full withdrawal risked triggering a new "civil war" here.

American officials say the Iraqis seem to be playing out the clock. The officials said the U.S. hasn't discussed any specific troop numbers with the Iraqis, and cautioned that the discussions between the two countries have yet to even address basic issues like what specific missions would be entrusted to the holdover American troops.

The American presence in Iraq, meanwhile, is rapidly disappearing.

The U.S. recently withdrew its final provincial reconstruction team, closing the door on a program that was until recently a much-touted centerpiece of the American nation-building effort here. The military population at Camp Victory, a sprawling base near Baghdad's airport that once housed 46,000 troops now hosts 24,000.

The upshot is that by the time the Maliki government makes up its mind about a troop extension, it could well be too late.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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