Security vacuum feared if troops withdraw as planned
WASHINGTON -- Eight months shy of its deadline for pulling the last American soldier from Iraq and closing the door on an 8-year war, the Pentagon is having second thoughts.
Reluctant to say it publicly, officials fear a final pullout in December could create a security vacuum, offering an opportunity for power grabs by antagonists in an unresolved and simmering Arab-Kurd dispute, a weakened but still active al-Qaeda, or even an adventurous neighbor such as Iran.
The United States wants to keep perhaps several thousand troops in Iraq, not to engage in combat but to guard against an unraveling of a fragile peace. This was made clear during Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit Thursday and Friday. He and the top U.S. commander in Iraq talked up the prospect of an extended U.S. stay.
How big a military commitment might the United States be willing to make beyond 2011?
"It just depends on what the Iraqis want and what we're able to provide and afford," Mr. 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 United States would consider a range of possibilities, from staying an extra couple of years to remaining in Iraq as permanent partners.
Less clear is whether the Iraqis will ask for any extension.
Powerful political winds are blowing against such a move. U.S. officials assert that Iraqi leaders -- Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd -- are saying privately they see a need for help developing their air defenses and other military capabilities. U.S. training of Iraqi forces has focused on combating an internal enemy, including al-Qaeda, rather than external threats.
If the Iraqis do not ask for more help, Dec. 31 probably will be the end of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
About 47,000 U.S. troops are there now.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R. S.C.), a leading skeptic of the Obama Administration's plan to turn over the Iraq mission to the State Department in January, has called this a formula for failure. He says the U.S. needs to keep at least 10,000 troops in Iraq into 2012. He's said it is imperative the United States remain to "make sure Iran doesn't interfere with the Iraqi sovereignty" and to help develop an Iraq that emerged from decades of oppressive rule by Saddam Hussein with no army, a crippled economy, and a corrupted political order.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, says he has not been asked by the Pentagon to recommend any potential extension of the military mission. He said Iraqis have an unrealistic view of the strength of their army and police, in part because more than a year after a national election that returned Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister, the government lacks defense and interior ministers.