Report: Obama may reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq to just 3,000 by year's end

It started as a Fox News scoop but now HuffPo’s hearing the same thing. For the second time in three months, O may be ready to order a drawdown that’s steeper than the Pentagon’s comfortable with. And I’ll bet this one’s even more popular with the public than that one was.

Senior commanders are said to be livid at the decision, which has already been signed off by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta…

“We can’t secure everybody with only 3,000 on the ground nor can we do what we need to with the Iraqis,” one source said.

A senior military official said by reducing the number of troops to 3,000, the White House has effectively reduced the mission to training only.

“There is almost no room for security operations in that number; it will be almost purely a training mission,” this official said. The official added that a very small number of troops within that 3,000 will be dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts, but that’s not nearly what Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wanted.

Supposedly the Pentagon wanted 27,000 troops there at year’s end, but when the White House pushed back, they agreed that they could make do — with extreme effort — with 10,000. Now, somehow, we’re at 3,000, although HuffPo notes that the number could be as high as 5,000 at times depending upon troop rotations. Important question to which we don’t have an answer yet: Is it Obama who’s pushing this new number, as some sort of election message about having brought all (or almost all) the troops home? Or is it the Iraqi government?

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions, said they are finalizing several options. But they said key leaders, including President Barack Obama, have not yet made a decision because it still hinges on what Baghdad ultimately requests. Officials said they want to have the options ready by mid-month…

The White House has offered to keep as many as 8,500 or 10,000 troops in Iraq. The number could also be smaller, and the options under review would keep varying numbers of troops in the country depending on what types of assistance the Iraqis say they need…

The decision is politically explosive in Iraq, where continued presence of U.S. troops would likely raise tensions and spur more violence.

Panetta’s been negotiating with the Iraqis for months about whether U.S. troops will stay after the security agreement ends later this year. He said a few weeks ago that they were making progress, but “progress” in which direction? In theory, the harder Iraq is hit by terror attacks — and last month was especially bad, culminating in a suicide bombing at Baghdad’s biggest Sunni mosque — the more Maliki et al. should want a larger U.S. troop presence to continue to help with security. But the more U.S. troops there are, the less room there is for Iran and local Iraqi warlords to act as guarantors of Shiite security instead. Which of course is why Muqtada al-Sadr is threatening a new military campaign if any American boots remain on the ground next year. The internal calculus in the Iraqi government is, I take it, all about figuring out how many/few U.S. troops they can request without igniting new insanity among the various insane constituencies, internal and external, that they have to deal with. If 3,000 is in fact the number, evidently they’ve settled on “token force incapable of doing anything useful” as optimal.

Needless to say, Obama has all the latitude on this decision that he could ever want. I think the public’s almost completely given up on following Iraq, especially with Afghanistan and Libya looming larger this year in U.S. foreign-policy calculations, and to the extent that there are still sectarian troubles there, there’s nothing the average voter will think we can do about it after eight years. The broader strategic consideration is what happens if (a) the Iranian nuke kabuki finally comes to a head between Iran and the west and/or (b) Iran’s pal Assad is toppled in Syria by the Sunni majority, leaving a power hostile to Tehran right on Iraq’s doorstep. Either of those scenarios could lead Iran to increase its presence in Iraq as a provocation to the U.S. or for “self-defense” reasons. Reason enough to insist on more American troops? Or is the Iraqi government already so beholden to Iran that it won’t let that happen even if we demand it?