Slippage On SOFA?
Spencer Ackerman notes that Nouri al-Maliki, not Barack Obama, brooched the subject of keeping American troops in Iraq beyond the end of 2011, as mandated by the status of forces agreement.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the door for the first time Thursday to the prospect of a U.S. military presence in Iraq after the December 2011 deadline for troop withdrawal set by last year’s bilateral accord — something President Obama appeared to rule out during a joint appearance on Tuesday.
Speaking to an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, Maliki said the accord, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, would “end” the American military presence in his country in 2011, but “nevertheless, if Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this at that time based on the needs of Iraq,” he said through translation in response to a question from The Washington Independent. “I am sure that the will, the prospects and the desire for such cooperation is found among both parties.” [...]
In a joint appearance with Maliki at the White House on Tuesday, President Obama gave no indication that he envisioned a place for U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, instead pledging to “fulfill our commitment to remove all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.” Using language that signaled an end to the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, Obama said the departure of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities was an “unmistakable signal” that his administration will “keep our commitments with the sovereign Iraqi government.” There are currently about 130,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Senior administration officials have denied any intent to keep U.S. forces in Iraq past that period as well. “It would require a new agreement, a new negotiation — almost certainly an Iraqi initiative — to provide for some presence beyond the end of 2011,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in February after Obama announced a schedule for staggered U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement. “So in the absence of that agreement, in the absence of any negotiation for such an agreement, it is in keeping with the SOFA that, to say definitively, that we will be out at the end of 2011.”
You can read the full remarks of Maliki and Obama here. If I had to guess, I'd say that Maliki wants the flexibility of a US presence in case he needs their help in stopping a potential civil war against the Kurds in the north. It's not about increasing security - the fact that 2 million Iraqi pilgrims safely visited the shrine of Khadimiyah mosque, with only Iraqi security forces on guard, speaks to that. Maliki has traditionally used the forces as a blunt instrument to jockey for more power. If American troops can help stop a civil war in the north, and keep that part of the country in the fold, it fits with Maliki's desires.
The President should resist this. There's nothing that he can get out of keeping residual forces in Iraq going into an election year. It will not make Iraqis safer, as they must reconcile amongst themselves regardless of a US presence.
...Juan Cole says this is not a story. Maliki was mainly talking about a handful of trainers.