WASHINGTON - Eclipsed by the war in Afghanistan, growing tensions between Israel and its neighbours, and the continuing reverberations of the so-called "Arab Spring", Iraq is inching back into the news here as a debate over the future of U.S. military forces there gathers steam.
Military commanders and foreign policy hawks have been distressed by reports that the administration of President Barack Obama is backing a plan to keep 3,000-4,000 troops in Iraq after the end of the year.
Such a course will risk disaster, according to these critics, who favour pressing Baghdad to accept a larger force of at least 10,000, if not the 14,000-18,000 that has reportedly been recommended by the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin.
Washington needs to maintain a substantial number of combat troops in Iraq, they have argued, to ensure, among other things, that it does not slip back into civil war, become a base for Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, or come under greater Iranian influence than it already has.
"It would be one of the biggest blunders in American foreign policy to lose Iraq because you had 3,000 troops when you need 10 to 15 (thousand)," warned Sen. Lindsay Graham, an influential national security voice in the Republican Party, earlier this week. "Iran would love that."
The debate is hotting up as a key deadline approaches. Under a 2008 agreement negotiated by former President George W. Bush, the U.S., which has reduced its military presence in Iraq from an all-time high of some 170,000 troops to about 45,000 today, is supposed to withdraw all its remaining military forces from Iraq by the end of this year.
It had long been assumed that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would negotiate a new agreement that would permit a significant number of U.S. troops to remain in the country.
But, to the great frustration of top Pentagon officials, political deadlock between Maliki and the main opposition coalition headed by Ayad Allawi, as well as widespread popular antipathy, particularly among the majority Shi'a population, toward the nearly nine-year-old U.S. occupation, made it difficult for any Iraqi leader to be seen as eager to extend Washington's military presence.
Indeed, despite unusually blunt remarks by both Defence Secretary Robert Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen during high-profile visits to Baghdad this summer, Maliki was only able last month to line up sufficient support within his cabinet to begin talks on an extension. Moreover, that authority came with the condition that any remaining U.S. troops be confined to "training" activities.
Maliki's government has not yet indicated publicly how many troops it is prepared to accept, although key officials have reportedly told their U.S. interlocutors that any number greater than 10,000 would carry too heavy a political cost.
It was in that context that the purported plan for 3,000-4,000 troops, which the administration has not yet confirmed, surfaced last week, setting off a wave of protests from Graham and others.
Such a plan "is completely at odds with the best advice of military commanders on the ground, undercuts the position of American negotiators(,) and suggests that Iraq's future is of little importance to the United States," wrote Max Boot, a neo-conservative at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the Weekly Standard.
"In fact, with such small troop numbers, U.S. commanders would be forced to all but close shop," concluded Boot, whose views have in the past reflected those of former Central Command chief and current Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, Gen. David Petraeus.
Other hawks who supported both the 2003 invasion and the 2007 Petraeus-led "Surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to halt Iraq's slide into all-out sectarian civil war have echoed Boot's arguments against such a small force.
"(Such a force) certainly will not be in any position to play the vital peacekeeping role that produced the phenomenal drop in violence starting in early 2007," wrote Brookings analyst Kenneth Pollack in the Wall Street Journal this week.
"A force of only a few thousands Americans also will have a greatly reduced capacity to undertake unilateral counterterrorism operations," he went on in an apparent allusion to Washington's interest in striking against Al-Qaeda in Iraq cells, which have staged something of a comeback recently in predominantly Sunni communities that have felt marginalised by Maliki's government, and against Shi'a militias allegedly tied to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which Washington claims were responsible for a series of lethal attacks on U.S. forces in June.
"That (counterterror) mission must then be left largely to Iraqis, who have proven able but not always willing - especially when Iraq's own complicated politics make it inconvenient - to hunt down death squads and terrorists," Pollack noted. A small U.S. force, he added, would find it difficult even to protect itself from their would-be targets.
Pollack's Brookings' colleague, Michael O'Hanlon, also stressed that, in the absence of a larger U.S. force, the Sunni-Shi'a sectarian civil war could re-ignite, while simmering tensions over Kurdish ambitions in and around multi-ethnic Kirkuk could easily spark a new conflict.
While the security situation has improved substantially, "Iraq's politics, by contrast, have gone backwards," according to O'Hanlon, who implicitly conceded that the strategic goal of Petraeus' Surge – national reconciliation – remained elusive.
Only a larger force of 10,000 to 20,000 could act as an effective peacekeeper that would "help buy more time for Iraq" to heal its internal divisions, he wrote on the National Interest website.
While agreeing with O'Hanlon's assessment that the political situation in Iraq has indeed moving in the wrong direction, however, Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Mideast analyst who teaches at Georgetown University, argued on his National Interest blog that O'Hanlon's conclusion was flawed and that "the externally assisted imposition of increased security" had failed to advance national reconciliation.
"Insofar as the political situation is moving backward, the correlation is negative," according to Pillar, who commissioned a well-known study before the Iraq invasion that predicted civil conflict and insurgency.
"Put these observations about current trends in Iraq together and the conclusion should be clear: because the U.S. assisted security effort is not bringing Iraq any closer to political reconciliation and stability, the end-of-year deadline for extracting U.S. troops from Iraq should be observed, save perhaps for the approximately 3,000 personnel the Obama administration envisions keeping there in a mostly training role," Pillar wrote.
Those favouring compliance with the 2008 withdrawal accord also received support from a highly decorated former Navy SEAL who served three tours in Iraq. Writing Wednesday in the normally hawkish Wall Street Journal, Leif Babin argued that "we've accomplished all that is reasonable possible" in Iraq and should declare victory.
"The vision of Iraq as a flowering democracy free of violent extremist attacks and wielding advanced military capability in close alliance with the U.S. was always a utopian fantasy," he wrote.
Moreover, "the U.S. presence subtracts credibility from the government of Iraq and empowers anti-American, pro-Iranian forces."
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.