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Plan would keep some troops in Iraq

By Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers
New York Times / September 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is supporting a plan that would keep 3,000 to 4,000 US troops in Iraq after a deadline for their withdrawal at year’s end, but only to continue training security forces there, a senior military official said yesterday.

The recommendation would break a pledge by President Obama to withdraw all US forces from Iraq by the deadline but would still involve significantly fewer forces than proposals presented at the Pentagon in recent weeks by the senior US commander in Iraq, General Lloyd J. Austin III, to keep as many as 14,000 to 18,000 troops there.

The smaller force - if approved by the White House and the Iraqi government - reflected the shifting political realities in both countries.

The recommendation also reflected the tension between Obama’s promise to bring all US forces home and the widely held view among commanders that Iraq is not yet able to provide for its own security. And it reflected the mounting pressures to reduce the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, both wars that have become increasingly unpopular as the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks nears. Even as the US military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the CIA will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will private security contractors working for the State Department.

In Iraq, a lingering US military presence is hugely contentious, even though some political leaders, especially among the Kurds and Sunnis, would like some US troops to stay as a buffer against what they fear will be Shi’ite political dominance, coupled with the rising influence of neighboring Iran.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, has also indicated he would consider allowing US trainers to stay beyond the deadline, negotiated by President George W. Bush. At the same time, he owes his position as prime minister to the political followers of the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes any Americans remaining.

The Iraqi cabinet authorized the beginning of talks over a US military presence but insisted that they be limited to a training mission, a senior administration official said. Panetta’s recommendation fell “within the confines of what the Iraqis said they need,’’ the official said.

Panetta said that no decisions had been made about the number of US troops that would remain in Iraq.

With the deadline for a final withdrawal now less than four months away, the debate has intensified. Iraq remains deeply unsettled, if less violent than the worst years of the war in 2006 and 2007. In the past several weeks, a string of bombings and attacks have intensified the violence, renewing fears about Iraq’s ability to main security.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the question at home and in Iraq, the senior administration official referred to any potential post-2011 force as “a small, temporary military presence.’’ Even that might be difficult for al-Maliki to sell. The security agreement al-Maliki’s government negotiated with the Bush administration outlined, among other things, the legal protections for US forces in the country.

Those protections expire with the agreement Dec. 31.

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