WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is facing a major political and strategic dilemma as it debates a continued troop presence in Iraq after this year’s deadline for withdrawal passes.
Several Iraq experts and former defense officials, including people who were involved in the formulation of the original 2008 agreement that permitted American troops to remain in Iraq, said the administration appears to be wary of the consequences of leaving Iraq in full, or with too few troops left in place – and is in the process of seeking a new pact with the Iraqi government.
"At the time of the negotiations it was made clear that it would not be the last agreement, it would be the first," said a former defense official with knowledge of the talks over the 2008 pact, known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
"Subject to conditions on the ground in 2011 there might be revisiting of the agreement -- if not as a SOFA then as part of the Strategic Framework. But there was never a contemplation that we would walk out of Iraq at end of 2011 like we did at the end of Vietnam. The SOFA was a bridge document to get us to end of 2011."
President Obama has repeatedly pledged to adhere to the original terms of the deal and withdraw all of the nearly 50,000 American troops still in Iraq by the end of the year, save, perhaps, a handful in embassies and other select locations.
But in recent months, the U.S. has let it be known that it is willing to consider staying in significant numbers -- if the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requests it.
In May, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told an American think tank that he "hoped" the Iraqi government would ask the U.S. to keep troops there after the deadline.
"I hope they figure out a way to ask, and I think that the United States will be willing to say 'yes' when that time comes," Gates said.
More recently, current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on his first official visit to Iraq in his new post, said that the U.S. would "seriously consider" an Iraqi request to keep American troops there. In a later, more candid meeting with a group of American soldiers, Panetta expressed his exasperation that the Iraqi government was taking so long to make the request: "Dammit, make a decision," he said.
Experts on Iraq said that Maliki has indeed been cagey about whether he would make such a request, in no small part because his government’s fragile coalition is largely dependent on the support of the Sadrists, as well as Maliki’s own pledge to see American forces out at the end of 2011.
But last week, Maliki suggested after a meeting with Panetta that he expects thousands of American forces to remain in the country, pointedly using the Arabic word for "trainers," not "troops."
This distinction, as Reuters reported, might be a way of paving the way for an agreement that does not require parliamentary support, but it also worries American officials who fear that Maliki’s request, when it comes, will not include enough troops to keep Americans in the embassies and consulates safe, or include the legal immunity they would require.
"The Pentagon is very worried that what they get may not be something they can live with," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics.
"It’s part of a quasi-Cold War mentality: they want forward bases in the struggle with Iran, so they are looking to Iraq next door. But it cuts both ways. If they aren’t there with enough levels of indigenous support they will just get hammered by Iran. They will just be tethered goats."
A recent spike in attacks against U.S. troops made June the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq in three years.
Earlier in the year, the popular Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told the BBC that the Iraqi government was under "a lot of pressure" from the Americans to let them stay, and that his dormant militia, the Mehdi Army, would be "reactivated" if that happened.
"At the moment [the militia’s] activities are frozen, but if the Americans stay, that will change," al-Sadr said. "We are resisting, we are targeting their bases, their soldiers, and their vehicles as long as they are here in Iraq."
On Monday, the Iraqi press reported the surprising news that a leading figure in the Sadrist movement had agreed to permit Americans to stay in Iraq after 2011, but Salah al-Obaidi, a spokesman for the movement, dismissed that as a false rumor.
"Really, we have the same principles that we spoke of before: that we refuse any kind of extension for troops to stay after 2011," al-Obaidi told The Huffington Post.
In one potential sign of the administration’s seriousness about not sitting on the sidelines of any internal Iraqi deliberation of a new troop pact, Brett McGurk, the former National Security Council official who led negotiations over the 2008 SOFA, has returned to Iraq as an envoy of President Obama.
This is not the first time that McGurk, a young lawyer who one former defense official on Iraq calls "the smartest guy" on the legal status of American troops, has been called back into service to help improve communications with the Iraqi government.
Last year, McGurk, who left government after a several months in the Obama National Security Council, was instrumental in smoothing along internal Iraqi negotiations over the formation of the government there.
"He was the facilitator, the guy who basically was communicating with all the different factions within the Iraqi government," said Nir Rosen, a journalist who described McGurk’s recurring role in Iraqi political deliberations in his recent book, "Aftermath."
In a statement to The Huffington Post, David Ranz, a spokesman with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, denied that there has been any change in policy regarding troop withdrawal.
"U.S. military will continue to abide by the Security Agreement signed by Iraq and the United States in November 2008," Ranz said.
"We are on track to the complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011," he added. "There has been no decision made about keeping any troops in Iraq beyond 2011, nor has there been any request from the Iraqis for additional troops. Therefore, any discussion about the potential for troops in Iraq after 2011 is purely speculative and does not reflect a decision that has been made by the government of Iraq or the United States."
In the meantime, the Obama administration seems keen to downplay controversy about the Iraq plans, particularly in the run-up to an election.
"Obama’s short-term concern is he doesn’t want Iraq to somehow re-enter the news before an election," said Noah Feldman, an Iraq expert at Harvard Law School.
"They have the benefit of consensus: Everyone wants the war to end and no one wants us to look like we’ve lost disastrously, and they can assume the public just trusts them to do the right thing," he continued. "Maliki and the U.S. have roughly the same interests, which is to preserve the stability in the country without making it look like he’s calling for a continuation of occupation. I don’t know if you can defer the question [of total withdrawal] indefinitely, but it does seem like they want to defer one more time, and it looks like they can."