The Pentagon is officially ending its seven-year combat mission in Iraq on Aug. 31, but the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops will still carry out missions against terrorists and the CIA will continue cooperation with Iraq’s now-unified intelligence service.
American F-16s will continue to patrol the skies, the U.S. will establish two new consulates, and the U.S. military and U.S. security contractors will still train and equip Iraq’s military and police.
“A third mission will be to continue our support to Iraqi counterterrorism efforts,” Colin Kahl, a deputy assistant defense secretary for Middle East affairs, told reporters Monday.
A senior U.S. official told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the United States will maintain a significant intelligence relationship with Iraq after Aug. 31.
“No one should think that the American intelligence presence in Iraq will draw down when the U.S. military starts withdrawing additional troops,” this official said. “There’s close cooperation with Iraq on intelligence matters, and we expect that solid relationship to continue.”
U.S. intelligence cooperation with Iraq — in conjunction with the U.S. military — includes operating armed and surveillance aircraft and electronic spying that allows the U.S. and Iraqi military to collect and quickly sort all intercepted communications within discreet geographic areas, such as a few city blocks.
In a statement Wednesday, President Obama said, “I’m pleased to report that — thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians in Iraq - our combat mission will end this month, and we will complete a substantial drawdown of our troops.”
The drawdown of troops, however, does not mean the U.S. presence in Iraq will be diminished.
The State Department is setting up two new consulates in Iraq, one in the southern city of Basra and another in the northern Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. Political interface between the United States and Iraq that occasionally went through military channels now will be conducted through civilian-level diplomats.
While the United States takes no public position on the details of a new Iraqi government, senior U.S. diplomats have several meetings a day with Iraqi politicians, said Christopher Hill, the recently departed U.S. ambassador in Baghdad.
Earlier this week, two senior Obama administration officials said in interviews that the United States plans to deepen its engagement with the Iraqi government in the coming months, despite the drawdown of U.S. troops.
When Mr. Obama entered office, more than 144,000 U.S. troops were on the ground in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement that the Bush administration signed with the Iraqi government stated that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, though leaders of Iraq’s military have stated publicly in recent months that they would prefer some U.S. soldiers to stay.
Iraqi politicians remain deadlocked in negotiations on forming a new government, and small terrorist groups have continue to launch devastating attacks.
“I think contrary to the perceptions of some, this transition in the nature of U.S. presence in Iraq does not imply strategic disengagement,” said Mr. Kahl. “Instead, it signals a transformation in our bilateral relationship, and in many respects an increase or a deepening of our engagement in a way that’s sustainable over the long term.”
Mr. Kahl, who was an adviser on Iraq for the Obama presidential election campaign, co-authored an independent paper in 2008 that called for a force of 60,000 to 80,000 troops to be stationed in Iraq through the end of 2010. The recommendation was at odds with the public pledges of Mr. Obama and his Democratic rivals who were promising a swifter exit from Iraq.
Mr. Kahl also said Monday that the United States would continue to “help Iraq meet its air sovereignty needs.” A squadron of F-16 fighter jets will be stationed at the Balad air base.
Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, deputy director of the Institute for the Study of War, said, “The truth of the matter is this mission has been shifting for months now. Most of our ground forces are engaged in stability operations and this will continue through 2011.”
On the diplomatic front, Mr. Hill stressed that the U.S. Embassy was not exercising leverage to expedite the process of forming an Iraqi government.
When asked whether U.S. diplomats had proposed a plan that would create a senior position in charge of all security forces, a possible carrot to Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi leader whose secular coalition received the most votes in the March 7 elections, to join the government, Mr. Hill said it was not.
“The U.S. hasn’t been proposing things. We haven’t been importing ideas from Washington. There are a number of ideas out there in Iraq,” he said.
But he also said Wednesday that Gary Grappo, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, has “upwards of 10 meetings a day” with Iraqi political leaders.
Mr. Hill described the idea of a single security chief as a chairman of “Political Committee for National Security, the PCNS,” a position that existed after the fall of Saddam Hussein but had become “moribund in recent years.”
An Iraqi politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity but who was familiar with U.S. diplomacy on government formation said the United States supported leaving Nouri al-Maliki in his position as prime minister, but favors giving the chairmanship of the PCNS to Mr. Allawi, a former interim prime minister and the leader of the Iraqiya party that received the most seats in the March 7 elections. Mr. Allawi worked closely with the CIA and the British MI6 intelligence service during the 1990s, when both organizations supported Saddam’s opponents.
Mr. Hill would not say whether he thinks Mr. Maliki will remain prime minister when asked on Tuesday at the State Department. But he also said most Iraqis expected a Shiite would be the prime minister of the new government, and that the new government would include Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in senior positions.
Entifadh Qanbar, a politician with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Alliance and an adviser to politician and former member of the exiled opposition, Ahmad Chalabi, said talk of creating such a security chief would doom Iraq’s democracy.
“The whole plan is to sideline the Iraqi National Alliance under the banner that this is an Iranian-made alliance, as an alternative to the alliance,” Mr. Qanbar said. “This will make Iraq just like Egypt.”
Politicians close to Mr. Chalabi helped to disqualify some senior Sunni politicians aligned with Mr. Allawi before the March elections under Iraq’s de-Ba’athification laws. Those laws prohibit politicians from openly endorsing the Ba’ath Party of Saddam in public.
Mr. Hill said Tuesday his fights with Shiite politicians over the de-Ba’athification law was his least pleasant memory of his 14 months serving in Baghdad.
Mark Alsalih, the U.S. representative of Iraq’s vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, said the U.S. was downplaying the influence of Iran in the formation of Iraq’s government.
“The Americans are downplaying Iranian influence in Iraq. But believe me, they are there and they are applying pressure through the parties of Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi National Alliance to form a sectarian government that is friendly with Iran,” he said.
Mr. Alsalih said that in April when Iraq’s Sunni deputy prime minister, Rafi al-Eassawi, visited Tehran, the chief of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, told the politician, “We already have 159 seats, what do we need you guys for?”
At the time, the two Shiite-dominated parties appeared close to forming a governing coalition, but that prospect has recently faded after Mr. Maliki insisted on remaining Iraq’s prime minister.
Mr. Kahl said Iran has overplayed its hand in Iraq.
“They tried to influence the provincial and national elections not very successfully,” he said. “They tried to defeat the U.S.-Iraq security agreement not very successfully. And I think that their experience with the militias that they’ve backed is that when they’ve overplayed their hands, they’ve gotten a lot of Iraqi pushback on this.”