Uh oh: Iraq may take up offer to extend American presence

About six weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled that the Obama administration might change directions on its pledge to withdraw all US forces from Iraq at the end of the year.  Gates told troops during a visit to Baghdad that the Iraqi government would have to act quickly to make the request, as the process of withdrawal would start in earnest soon.  Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen later said that the Iraqis had been silent on the issue, but provided tacit confirmation that the White House was open to, er, hope and change.

They’re silent no more, as National Journal reported last night:

Obama’s position—one he staked out as a candidate chasing the Democratic nomination in 2008—was bolstered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s repeated insistence that the U.S. military sticks to the withdrawal timeline.

But this week, for the first time, al-Maliki indicated a willingness to call for an extension of the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond this year’s troop withdrawal deadline. Maliki announced Wednesday that he’d be willing to ask for some troops to remain if there’s consensus among Iraq’s various political blocs that a continued American presence is needed. Such consensus is anything but assured but the mere fact that Maliki raised the issue had deep resonance in Washington.

Maliki’s remarks came as a surprise to administration officials. In private talks with Iraqi officials, the United States has broached the idea of leaving some of the 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this year. Publicly, the administration has not said one way or another whether it would honor a request from Iraq to keep U.S. troops there after this year.

The surprise may be Maliki’s openness to the idea.  It’s been received wisdom in the US media and among the Left that the Iraqis want us out of their country.  No doubt some of them do; Moqtada al-Sadr has often threatened to start a civil war if US forces don’t leave, no doubt encouraged by his Iranian sponsors.

But clearly, that’s not the case.  Iraq doesn’t have much of an air force, for one thing, and an American withdrawal will put them at a serious disadvantage against Syria and Iran.  They need more time to rebuild those forces, as well as more logistical and training support for their ground forces.  The biggest political problem for Maliki was solved when the US withdrew from the cities and took on a much lower profile in Iraq.

A change of mind by Obama on Iraq in response to an explicit request for continuing the military partnership would certainly be welcome.  Under the circumstances in the region, having a significant American force based in the center of the Middle East without the complications that staying in Saudi Arabia created would be a real advantage to us, especially in dealing with Iran.  Politically, though, it could create huge problems for Obama on his Left, and reneging on the clear and public invitations from Gates and Mullen would be disastrous with everyone else.