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Obama Turns Focus to Iraq as Future U.S. Role Still Evolving

President Barack Obama is focusing on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by year’s end, even as his administration continues talks behind the scenes about the future American role there.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Dec. 12. Two days later, the president will address troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army Special Operations Command.

Obama wanted to speak to troops and their families on Dec. 14 “as we definitively end America’s war in Iraq this month,” the White House said in a statement today.

The war is ending as U.S. concerns about Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, and its nuclear program are mounting.

Obama, running for re-election next year, promised to end U.S. military involvement during his 2008 campaign. He’s been criticized by Republican presidential challengers who say it’s too soon to end the mission and that doing so could put U.S. gains at risk.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Obama’s decision an “astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition.” Romney questioned whether the decision came from “naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude.”

The agreement that kept troops in the country through the end of the year was negotiated in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Iraqi government declined to provide immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops to stay into next year.

‘Partisan Environment’

“You don’t want, as a Democratic president, the charge that you somehow lost the war,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy center in Washington. “In this partisan environment, every charge will be made and has been.”

The U.S. military is working to remove its remaining 8,000 military personnel and 5,000 contractors from Iraq as the year-end deadline nears. That’s down from a peak of about 300,000 Americans in Iraq in 2007, including almost 170,000 uniformed personnel as well as civilians and contractors.

The number of American military bases in Iraq has plummeted to five from 505 at the peak, said Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, the deputy commander of American Forces in the country. They have fewer than 1,000 truckloads of equipment left to remove before the final exit, he said.

Helmick told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that violence in Iraq “is at an all-time low” since the invasion to less than 50 attacks per week compared with a peak of 1,600.

“We enabled and facilitated elections,” he said. “We’ve built a military.”

U.S. Presence

After the troop exit, the U.S. presence will consist mainly of the Embassy in Baghdad and its affiliated consulates and other offices. About 16,000 personnel will serve under the embassy’s umbrella next year, according to State Department figures. About 1,700 of them will include diplomats and subject-matter experts in fields such as business and agriculture as well as law enforcement officers, while 5,000 will be security contractors to guard staff and facilities.

The U.S. military also will continue coordination with Iraq such as port visits and joint exercises. Whether and how Iraq might enlist the U.S. in helping defend its air space will depend on what Iraqi officials decide, Helmick said. The U.S. has thousands of forces elsewhere in the region, including in neighboring Kuwait, as well as aircraft carriers off the coasts.

Still, Iranian influence has grown and gaps remain in the strength of the country’s leadership as well as its security forces.

Fractured Coalition

Maliki still hasn’t reached agreement among his fractured coalition to name new ministers for defense and the interior, more than a year since forming a government. Exhortations to make the appointments from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on his first visit in his new post in July went unheeded, as did the urging of Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Iraq last week.

Attacks by Iranian-backed militias, al-Qaeda in Iraq and weak management and logistics in the police and army continue to undermine internal security. The country’s air defenses are mostly nonexistent, and command of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities remains weak.

“The stability of Iraq after the withdrawal of American forces has been a major concern of both our nations,” Maliki wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “I believe in the capabilities of our security forces and in the necessity of U.S. assistance.”

‘Question Mark’

“We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Helmick said. “There is a question mark right now for external security. But for the internal security, we’ve done all we can do.”

The war also has had its impact on the American fighting men and women, who returned home scarred physically or with post-traumatic stress. A program called “Operation New Exit” aims to bring service members back to Iraq who were evacuated because of injuries, so they can leave formally and with dignity.

Cordesman said that, while there has been progress, there is “very little prospect” that tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, or governance questions will resolve themselves quickly: “This is a government finding its way.”

Cordesman said Biden made clear the U.S. remains committed to Iraq’s transition and that that the withdrawal of combat troops always envisioned a presence for training and contingencies.

‘Arab Winter’

“A lot of this is, how willing are the United States and Iraq willing to play around with semantics, diplomatic immunity, and how important is it for Iraq to be able to assert its independence?” Cordesman said.

“From the U.S. viewpoint you want to have a presence that can counter Iran’s influence,” Cordesman said. “It isn’t now simply the future of Iraq, but the future of Syria. The issue is regional security. It is the Arab Winter.”

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama’s top military adviser, has said while U.S. commanders favored leaving as many as 16,000 troops in Iraq, they wouldn’t consider that option without immunity. Panetta has said the U.S. will still have 40,000 American troops nearby in the Gulf region after the mission ends.

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