WASHINGTON - A special envoy from President Barack Obama raised the possibility in a secret meeting with senior Iraqi military and civilian officials in Baghdad Sep. 23 that his administration would leave more than 15,000 combat troops in Iraq after the 2011 deadline for U.S. withdrawal, according to a senior Iraqi intelligence official familiar with the details of the meeting.
But the White House official, Puneet Talwar, special assistant to the president and senior director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, said the deployment would have to be handled in a way that was consistent the president's pledge to withdraw U.S. troops completely from Iraq under the 2008 agreement, the official said.
Talwar suggested that the combat troops could be placed under the cover of the State Department's security force, the Iraqi intelligence official told IPS.
The Obama envoy was referring to a force that the State Department had announced in August to provide security for U.S. civilian officials working in Baghdad and four regional consulates in Kirkuk, Erbil, Mosul and Basra. The administration's official position is that the security force is to be manned by private security personnel, as explained in a briefing given by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Corbin Aug. 17.
Talwar's remarks suggest the Obama administration was planning to adopt a ruse to keep combat troops in Iraq after the expiration of the U.S.-Iraq troop withdrawal agreement on Dec. 31, 2011, while assuring the U.S. public that all U.S. troops had been pulled out by the deadline.
Last year, Obama accepted a proposal by U.S. military leaders to re-label all combat brigades in Iraq "advise and assist brigades" so he could claim that he was withdrawing all combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010. Six U.S. fully equipped combat brigades remain in Iraq today, contrary to the administration's official position that only non-combat troops remain there.
Asked by the Iraqis whether there would be U.S. troops in Iraq in spring 2012, Talwar responded that it would "depend on the definition of a troop", according to the account of the meeting provided to IPS by the Iraqi intelligence official.
When the Iraqi participants in the Sep. 23 meeting asked how many troops might be left in Iraq, Talwar said preferably one brigade but that it could be two brigades. When asked how many soldiers that would mean per brigade, however, the NSC official said the number could be open-ended.
An Iraqi military official told Talwar the military understood the minimum number of troops needed for a self- contained U.S. combat force was 15,000 to 28,000. They asked Talwar whether the U.S. could keep at least 15,000 in the country, and Talwar answered that it was possible.
Each U.S. combat brigade team has 3,500 to 4,000 troops. Thus the 15,000 regular combat troops discussed as a possible post-2011 troop presence would represent between three and four brigades.
The Iraqis also asked whether the 15,000 regular combat troops could be augmented with Special Operations Forces, according to the Iraqi official's account. Talwar said the additional deployment of SOF troops after the withdrawal deadline would be possible, because the United States had never publicly acknowledged the presence of SOF units in Iraq.
The Pentagon signaled last summer that it was assuming the post-2011 U.S. military presence in Iraq would be less than 20,000 troops. In a press briefing last August, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Colin Kahl said Iraq "is not going to need tens of thousands of [American] forces".
Talwar also told the Iraqis that any deployment of combat troops in Iraq beyond the termination date of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement would require a letter from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Iraqi officials said the letter would be sent.
A National Security Council official refused to comment on whether Talwar had traveled to Baghdad at the time of the reported meeting.
To persuade the Obama administration to be more forthcoming on the issue of a continued U.S. troop presence, the Iraqi military has portrayed the government as threatened by both domestic and foreign enemies, according to the official's account of those interactions.
The Iraqis have argued that Iraq must have allies in the immediate future, and that if the United States does not fulfill that role, Iraq will turn to Iran or Russia to fill the gap, according to the Iraqi official.
They have told U.S. officials that Iran has already offered to station troops in Iraq if they are needed, the official said.
The main threat to Iraq's stability and integrity comes from the unresolved political conflicts between Sunni and Shi'a political factions and between the Kurds and Arabs.
The Obama administration used all of its waning political influence to pressure Maliki to include former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Sunni-supported Iraqiya bloc in the government that must still be formed.
But Maliki is said to be insisting that the "National Council" which the tentative agreement allocates to Allawi would be subordinate to the Maliki government - much to Allawi's chagrin. On Saturday, Allawi said he and his followers in Iraqiya would not join the government and predicted an upsurge of violence.
Allawi appeared to be hinting that Sunni fighters who left the insurgency in 2006 and 2007 under deals made with the U.S. military will now resume military resistance to the government.
The fundamental conflict between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs over the fate of Kirkuk and the oil fields in the surrounding area may be an even greater threat. The Kurds are insisting on a census that would presumably bolster their claim that Kirkuk is a predominantly Kurdish city in advance of a referendum on the issue.
But Maliki has been pursuing a domestic political strategy based on assuming the role of Arab nationalist, which makes it very unlikely that he will accept any concession of Iraqi territory - especially territory with major oil resources - to the Kurds.
The Iraqi military expects war between Kurdish troops and the Iraqi army over the disputed territory in the north to erupt sometime in the next two years. But the Iraqi army has been telling its U.S. counterparts that it will not be ready to handle such a crisis until 2014, according to the Iraqi intelligence official.
Elements of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division are now deployed in northern Iraq along the line of conflict between Kurds and Arabs, and the U.S. military has been particularly eager to preserve that U.S. military presence there. Last March, Gen. Ray Odierno, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, raised the possibility of putting U.S. troops along that line under a United Nations peacekeeping mandate.
A U.S. decision to keep combat brigades in Iraq would encourage Maliki to continue take a hard line toward Kurdish aspirations in pursuit of his strategy for consolidating power. It would also bolster his refusal to allow Allawi to gain a share of political power.
And negotiating a new agreement to station U.S. combat brigades in Iraq would risk embroiling the United States in Iraq's violent ethnic and sectarian conflicts for decades to come.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.