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US To Begin Troop Withdrawal from Iraq

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • September 16, 2008

    After prolonged political and diplomatic negotiations between Iraq and the United States, President George Bush announced on September 9 the decision to withdraw around 8000 troops by the end of February 2009. The withdrawal would be done in a phased manner - a Marine battalion by November 2008 and an Army brigade by February 2009.

    The decision came after repeated demands by Iraqi authorities for a clearly demarcated timeline on the pull out of American troops. Averse to issuing any such timeline, the United States has insisted that troop withdrawal would depend upon the ground situation and that it favoured a phased withdrawal. The UN-mandated term for the coalition forces will end on December 31, 2008 and the United States intends to remain in Iraq beyond that period till the situation comes under total control. It therefore wants to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) with Iraq that would allow US troops to operate in Iraq even after the UN mandate expires. This deal is yet to be finalised and is under negotiation. The Government of Iraq maintains that the security situation has improved and that its security forces are capable of controlling the situation in the country. Though violence on Iraqi streets continues to mar peace, casualty figures are certainly lower than that for previous years. Apart from the security situation, there are also other ticklish issues that seem to stand in the way of a SoFA.

    One controversial issue is immunity of US troops from prosecution under Iraqi law. The United States wants such immunity, but Iraq maintains that all American soldiers should come under the purview of Iraqi law. Similarly, the power of US troops to detain Iraqi civilians is also a contentious issue. The United States wants its troops to have the power to detain any Iraqi they find suspicious or dangerous. In addition, it also wants power for its troops to conduct military operations without the prior approval of the Iraqi government. Iraqi authorities are opposed to these measures and have said that these will be an affront to their sovereignty. Another issue that remains unresolved is the status of prisoners held by US forces in Iraq. Some 21,000 prisoners are being held by US troops at present without being charged with any crime.

    Iraqi Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki has strongly declared that, "[w]e cannot sign an agreement unless it will preserve the sovereignty and national interests of Iraq," and added that, "[a]ny foreign soldiers on Iraqi soil must have a specific time frame and not be open-ended, and Iraqi blood must be protected and cannot grant full immunity." Thus, for the Iraqis, the issue is about the preservation and exercise of their sovereignty including independence of decision making.

    US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unscheduled visit to Baghdad on August 21 to discuss the issue of troop withdrawal from Iraq. After meeting Iraqi officials, she declared that the United States and Iraq are “very very close” to signing an agreement. Iraqi authorities have repeatedly maintained that the United States has agreed for complete withdrawal of troops by 2011, but this has been rejected by the United States. In a statement issued on August 25, Noori al-Maliki said that, "[t]here is an agreement between the two sides that there will be no foreign soldiers in Iraq after 2011." This was promptly contradicted by White House spokesman Tony Fratto who said that negotiations are still continuing and “we have not yet finalized an agreement." While the Iraqi Prime Minister is under severe domestic pressure to ask foreign troops to leave, the United States is in no hurry to pull out its forces. Behind the façade of leaving a stable Iraq, the United States intends to lengthen its military presence in the country.

    At present, the United States has more than 144,000 soldiers in Iraq. Withdrawing a mere 8000 of them in a span of six months is certainly not a good testimony of its seriousness to withdraw troops in the near future. Americans would like to continue their military presence in Iraq and exploit the country’s oil wealth. Also, a strong military presence in Iraq would help keep tab on the activities of neighbouring Iran and strengthen America’s strategic grip over the Gulf region. Moreover, the United States continues to be apprehensive about the ability of the Iraqi government and its defence forces to tackle the threat posed by insurgent groups. The potential for an increase in violence is another factor that is likely to delay a full American withdrawal. Thus, keeping in view long term US interests, the Iraqi government’s lack of capacity to respond to an increase in violence, any future security agreement to be signed between the two countries does not look like favouring an early and complete US troop withdrawal from Iraq.