After days of wrangling, leaders of the main political parties of Iraq agreed on August 2 to hand a joint mandate to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to negotiate with the United States on whether some Americans troops will stay on in Iraq to "train" Iraqi forces beyond the end of this year.
United States forces, according to President Barack Obama's withdrawal plan, are scheduled to vacate Iraq by the end of year deadline. It's also an "open secret" however that the long-established American preference is not to leave Iraq entirely. Pentagon pundits in Washington, and some of their fellow-travelers in Iraq, have long been thinking aloud that some American troops ought to stay on beyond the deadline, if only to train the Iraqis in keeping peace and ensuring security once the Americans are gone.
The ostensible justification for the Americans to still have their boots on the Iraqi soil is that the Iraqi security forces are, as yet, not quite ready to guarantee that the country will not slide into anarchy and lawlessness once the Americans disappear from the land.
A US government report released on July 30 said the security situation was deteriorating amid a wave of assassinations and Iranian-backed militia attacks. Up to 1,000 al-Qaeda militants remain in Iraq, the special inspector for Iraq reconstruction warned. June was the bloodiest month since April 2009 for US troops in Iraq, with 14 soldiers killed in attacks. Another five died in July.
Powerful and influential voices within the Iraqi coalition led by Maliki have been expressing concerns about the readiness of the Iraqi security forces with impunity. These voices have lately become more agitated as the deadline for US withdrawal nears. Encouragement for their alarm has come from the likes of Admiral Mike Mullen, the soon-to-retire chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who "urged" the Iraqis to make up their minds and take a "quick decision" barely hours before the Iraqi leaders, bending to his pressure, threw in the towel.
The US interest in prolonging its military presence in Iraq, albeit with less strength, may be dictated more by security than any other factor. The generals overseeing the Iraqi operation - from Washington as well as those on the ground - have been singing in unison that the Iraqi security forces weren't quite up to scratch to deal with the challenges ahead.
In touting the line that Iraqi forces are inadequate to rise to challenges that remain largely undefined beyond the cryptic excuse of sectarian divide, the generals betray an appalling disregard for their own failure to train their Iraqi proteges sufficiently. If they couldn't do it in eight years, despite all the resources and numbers at their command, what's there to lend confidence to anyone that they'd be able to find the holy grail of a competent and fully trained Iraqi security force with a thinned-out and scaled-down presence?
Iraqi politicians, representing the full spectrum of the country's myriad factions and clans, do seem to a certain extent to subscribe to the American angst on account of the Iraqi troops' half-baked ability to take charge of the gargantuan task of keeping the country secured against anarchy. Even the maverick Muqtada al-Sadr, whose opposition to American military presence in Iraq is well-known, may not mind a token US presence beyond the deadline of December 31, 2011, if only to train the Iraqi forces.
The official announcement from Baghdad, at the end of an hours-long conclave, was personally steered by President Jalal Talabani, and reflected the shared perception of the disparate Iraqi leadership that the Americans may still have limited utility. It said, cryptically: "The leaders agreed to authorize the Iraqi government to start the talks with the United States that are limited to training issues." (Emphasis added).
But that's where the consensus ends as many among the myriad Iraqi forces take a closer look at what really lurks underneath the American's surface claim that it is motivated solely by the inadequacy of Iraqi troops.
There's concern, not only among the Sadrists but also among other Shi'ite factions, including Maliki's own, that the Americans want to linger on in Iraq because of their Kurdish proteges. The history of Iraq since the first Gulf war of 1990-91 lends enough credence to their argument that the Americans would like to chaperon the Kurds for as long as possible.
The Kurds, led by Masood Barzani, have been sheltered by the Americans ever since the first Gulf war ended. They have been ruling and lording over the Kurdish areas virtually like an independent entity, and Baghdad's influence over the Kurdish lands is non-existent.
However, the future of Kirkuk, the oil-producing heart of Iraq, still hangs in the balance, with both the Arabs and Kurds of Iraq claiming it as theirs, exclusively. The Americans have stood in between the two in Kirkuk like a referee and still seem to covet, if not exactly relish, that role.
But the likes of Muqtada want the Americans to get out of the way, and aren't ready to fall for the excuse, posited from Washington and other like-minded Western capitals, that but for the Americans outside players, such as Iran, would make a tense stand-off even worse. For some time, many self-anointed advisers and soothsayers have been painting scenarios of open conflict with Iran, if only to knock the fear of god in the hearts of the Iraqis.
However, the biggest question mark hanging over the prospects of the American forces staying on in Iraq as "trainers", if not occupiers by another name, is the Washington demand that the trainers be given a completely free hand and, above everything else, immunity from Iraqi laws. Muqtada, for one, is dead against any kind of immunity for the American forces, under any guise or garb. His representative walked out of the Talabani meeting on this issue and he commands a large following among the Iraqi Shi'ites.
The immunity issue is explosive in the Iraqi context. The Iraqi memories of American combat troops and private 'contractors' running amok and going completely berserk, are still quite fresh; the wounds inflicted by the mercenary contractors are still raw and bleeding.
It's unthinkable that the Iraqis, no matter how little faith they have in the ability of their American-trained security troops to protect them, will sign on dotted lines marked by Washington. By the same token, it is highly unlikely that American regular troops and contracted mercenaries would stay on Iraqi soil without the umbrella protection of immunity.