Iraq contemplates US troop presence beyond withdrawal deadline

(By Deutsche Welle) Both Washington and Baghdad are hinting at the continued deployment of American troops in Iraq beyond the December withdrawal deadline. Eight years after the invasion, foreign troops may still be necessary for stability.

After battling a bloody insurgency for years, the United States is set to turn the page on the Iraq War and withdraw its remaining 45,000 troops by December, 2011. The withdrawal from Iraq is part of US President Barack Obama’s stated strategy of refocusing American military power on the fight against al Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

But as the officially fixed deadline nears, political leaders in both Washington and Baghdad are equivocating on whether or not a full withdrawal should actually occur. The US has placed growing pressure on the Iraqi government to decide whether or not they want a residual American troop presence to remain in the country beyond 2011 to ensure security.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who oversaw the 2007 surge of US troops credited with stabilizing Iraq, has signaled to Baghdad that Washington would be willing to support a continued military presence in the country.

“We are open to that possibility,” Gates said during a surprise visit to Iraq in April. “But they have to ask and time is running out.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while claiming that Iraqi forces can maintain internal stability, has also called for stronger military ties with Washington and has stated that he will leave the question of a US troop presence up to the Iraqi parliament.

Over the course of the past eight years, the United States has become deeply embedded in Iraqi society, acting as a critical mediator between the country’s fractious religious and ethnic groups. Although domestic pressure in the US and Iraq forced both sides to agree on the December deadline, political realities on the ground may demand a continued American military presence.

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