Washington — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq after a deadline for their withdrawal at year’s end, but only to continue training security forces there, a senior military official said on Tuesday.
The recommendation would break a longstanding pledge by President Obama to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by the deadline. But it would still involve significantly fewer forces than proposals presented at the Pentagon in recent weeks by the senior American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, to keep as many as 14,000 to 18,000 troops there.
The proposal for a smaller force — if approved by the White House and the Iraqi government, which is not yet certain — reflected the shifting political realities in both countries.
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It also reflected the tension between Mr. Obama’s promise to bring all American forces home and the widely held view among commanders that Iraq is not yet able to provide for its own security. And it reflected the mounting pressures to reduce the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, both wars that have become increasingly unpopular as the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches.
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department.
In Iraq, a lingering American military presence is hugely contentious, even though some political leaders, especially among the Kurds and Sunnis, would like some American troops to stay as a buffer against what they fear will be Shiite political dominance, coupled in turn with the rising influence of neighboring Iran.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has also indicated he would consider allowing American trainers to stay beyond the deadline, negotiated by President George W. Bush. At the same time, he owes his position as prime minister to the political followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who vehemently opposes any Americans remaining.
The Iraqi cabinet authorized the beginning of talks over an American military presence, but insisted that they be limited to a training mission, a senior administration official said. Mr. Panetta’s recommendation fell “within the confines of what the Iraqis said they need,” the official said.
Mr. Panetta himself, in comments to reporters as he traveled to New York for a Sept. 11 commemoration on Tuesday, said that no decisions had been made about how many American troops would remain in Iraq after the end of this year.
But despite the reluctance of several administration officials to publicly get out ahead of a formal recommendation and a presidential decision on such a delicate issue, as a practical matter Mr. Panetta has almost run out of time for the military to plan the logistics of a withdrawal by year’s end.
A recommendation to keep 3,000 American troops, first reported on Tuesday by Fox News, would leave in place a token force where many commanders had hoped to see a robust presence continue in a region that is viewed as strategic to American interests.
News of the plan was met with dismay by three senators who visited Iraq many times during the war: Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, and his Republican colleagues John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The three released a statement calling the 3,000 troops “dramatically lower than what our military leaders” have said “is needed to support Iraq in safeguarding the hard-won gains that our two nations have achieved at such great cost.”
Mr. Obama has steadily withdrawn troops from Iraq since taking office — to fewer than 50,000 now from more than 140,000 in January 2009 — without the drastic deterioration of security that many predicted along the way.
With the deadline for a final withdrawal now less than four months away, the debate over what if any to leave has intensified. Iraq remains deeply unsettled, if less violent than the worst years of the war in 2006 and 2007. In the last several weeks, a string of bombings and attacks have intensified the violence, renewing fears about Iraq’s ability to main security without American backup. Its political system, though democratic, remains riven by sectarian conflicts and crippled by corruption.
Underscoring the delicacy of the question at home and in Iraq, the senior administration official referred to any potential post-2011 force as “a small, temporary military presence.” Even that might be difficult for Mr. Maliki to sell. The security agreement Mr. Maliki’s government negotiated with the Bush administration outlined, among other things, the legal protections for American forces in the country.
Those protections expire with the agreement on Dec. 31, and American officials have long said they will have to negotiate new ones to cover any soldiers that remain.
In some ways, the debate over an American military presence is a rhetorical one. The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq’s security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats.
All year administration officials have repeated the vow to withdraw all American troops but left open the possibility of an extended mission — if the Iraqi government requested one.
The State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, reiterated the administration’s pledge to go to zero by the end of the year.
“I think our public position, our private position, hasn’t changed, that our plan is to withdraw by the end of the year,” she said on Tuesday when asked about reported comments by the Kurdish regional leader, Massoud Barzani, that he favored an American presence beyond 2011. “Were the Iraqi government to come forward and make a request for some continued security assistance, we would be prepared to look at it.”
Military and administration officials emphasized again on Tuesday that the Iraqis had not yet made any request and still might not. Nor has the administration made its final decision, though the planning for various contingencies has been under way for months. “Absent a request from the Iraqis, it’s difficult to settle on any one thing,” one of the military officials said.
With the year-end deadline looming large because of the lead time the Pentagon needs to withdraw forces from Iraq, the combination of these pressures has been forcing military commanders in Iraq to come up with options that call for fewer and fewer American troops.
American military analysts and planners say that 3,000 American troops would represent a bare-bones approach, with those forces likely to be assigned a training mission “with a limited capability at that,” said one military official, who like others interviewed for this article agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the talks with the Iraqis.
A senior American military officer said the planning at this point seemed to be driven more by the troop numbers than the missions they could accomplish, exactly the opposite of how military planners ideally like to operate. “I think we’re doing this backwards,” the officer said. “We should be talking about what missions we want to do, and then decide how many troops we’ll need.”
Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from New York, and Michael S. Schmidt from Baghdad.
This article, “Plan Would Keep Small Force in Iraq Past Deadline,” originally appeared at The New York Times.
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