WASHINGTON - Amid high-level U.S. congressional delegations to evaluate developments in Iraq, a growing number of voices here, from both the Barack Obama administration and members of Congress, are concerned about a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country by December 2011 – a deadline set forth in the supposedly inviolable Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraqi governments back in 2008.
The U.S. raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has reinvigorated debate about the necessity of a large U.S. military presence in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, but after Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner's visit to Iraq earlier this month, the argument for keeping troops in Iraq past the deadline has gained momentum.
"I think a small residual force should remain and the sooner the administration engages the Iraqi government, I think the better off we are going to be," Boehner said during his trip.
Regardless of the number of U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq after December, the Department of Defense's current plans for departure will leave behind legions of U.S. diplomatic personnel – the U.S. Department of State intends to double its staff in Iraq to nearly 16,000 and rely entirely on private contractors for security.
Along with senior members of Congress, top military commanders have indicated that the U.S. would be more than willing to keep a sufficiently large number of troops in Iraq past the deadline to maintain security and continue their advisory role, contingent only on a formal request by the Iraqi government. Some initial estimates by the U.S. military would keep up to 10,000 residual troops stationed in Iraq.
"Should the Iraqi government decide to discuss the potential for some U.S. troops to stay, I am certain my government will welcome that dialogue," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said during a visit to Camp Victory in Baghdad last month.
Since combat operations ended in September 2010, the remaining 46,000 U.S. troops have been limited to an advisory role in training and assisting Iraq's military and security forces. But some analysts who favor a continued presence of U.S. troops have focused on the U.S. military's ability to protect strategic interests, rather than strengthening Iraq's self-governance and building a more favorable relationship with all levels of Iraqi society.
"Having active bases in Iraq would allow us to project power and influence, counter the threat from both Iran and Al-Qaeda, and possibly even nudge the entire Middle East in a more pro-Western direction," Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month.
While the Obama administration has framed the issue in decidedly different terms - placing Iraq's self-determination as the major consideration in any plan to extend the SOFA - senior officials have been quick to point out the mutual interests a residual force may ensure and have stated that any decision to keep troops stationed in Iraq must, because of logistical purposes, be made within a reasonable timeframe.
"They will not be able to do the kind of job in intelligence fusion. They won't be able to protect their own airspace. They will have problems with logistics and maintenance," Gates said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.
But some analysts have criticized the focus on troop numbers, arguing that government officials, particularly members of Congress, should be more concerned with bolstering the diplomatic mission in Iraq, and how major cuts to the Department of State's budget requests – 8.4 billion dollars for fiscal year 2011 – will affect that mission.
"The civilian side of the U.S. foreign policy machine has never been more important across the entire Middle East: understanding and engaging newly empowered publics, building connections with emergent civil society movements, partnering on economic development projects, supporting police training and rule of law development," Dr. Marc Lynch, a regional expert, wrote on his foreignpolicy.com blog.
"That requires thinking past the military mission and devoting adequate resources to the civilian sector - something which Secretary Gates and the U.S. military clearly understand, but which Congress still seemingly does not," Lynch added.
While some continue to emphasize the need for either more troops or a renewed effort at U.S. public diplomacy in Iraq as the deadline draws nearer, Iraq will continue to face significant challenges in its domestic political arena.
Iraq has not been immune to the sentiments of pro-democracy uprisings gripping the Middle East – most of the protests, some ending in violent clashes with government security forces, have taken place in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, including the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya.
"The Iraqi political authorities need to end their knee-jerk responses and stop banning protests, detaining demonstrators, and beating journalists," Joe Stork, the deputy director on the Middle East for Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement.
Last month, tensions flared at one intersection of Kirkuk's Arab and Kurdish neighborhoods and, while not violent, resulted in the deployment of U.S. soldiers to ease the confrontation.
Acrimonious for decades, relations between Iraq's Arab-governed majority and its Kurdish minority have deteriorated in recent years as territorial and sovereignty disputes, including over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, continue to fester.
The overall levels of violence in Iraq have dropped dramatically since 2007, but the targeted killing of government officials, sectarian strife – both in parliament and in the streets – and corruption continue to hinder what is likely Iraq's most important undertaking: rebuilding after years of a bloody invasion, occupation and civil war.
Any extension of the SOFA is all but a political impossibility in Iraq since, even though Iraqi government officials, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, have indicated their desire to keep some troops past the deadline, the response from their constituencies, and from leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr, strongly opposed to any prolonged presence, would be disastrous for Iraq's fragile parliamentary coalition.
The crucial questions with regards to the U.S. presence in Iraq may yet come to be guided from a diplomatic, civil society rather than a militaristic frame of reference as President Obama fulfills his campaign promise to leave Iraq.