BAGHDAD – Iraqi politicians face the contentious question this year of whether to ask U.S. troops to stay beyond an end-of-2011 deadline for their departure. That decision has become far more complicated with the return to Iraq of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The future of U.S. troops in Iraq was a topic of talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Iraqi leaders Thursday during the first visit by a senior U.S. official since Iraq's new government was formed.
The case for an extension centers around concerns that Iraqi forces may not be ready to keep security. Many Sunnis want U.S. troops to stick around for their protection, fearing domination by the Shiite majority. Kurds see the Americans as a guarantee of their autonomous region in the north. And some in the party of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also want the U.S. forces to stay.
But al-Sadr, a Shiite who came home last week from nearly four years in voluntary exile in Iran, is a formidable obstacle. He immediately put the government on notice that he and his movement, which is a pivotal member of the ruling coalition, will not tolerate any lingering American troop presence.
"We heard a pledge from the government that it will expel the occupier, and we are waiting for it to honor its word," he said during a speech.
No decision on an extension will come at least until al-Maliki has chosen a defense minister. If Iraq requests an extension, the overriding question will be whether al-Sadr is willing to risk bringing down the government over it.
Under a deal agreed upon in 2008, the approximately 47,000 American troops still in the country must leave by the end of 2011. Privately, many in Iraq and the U.S. long assumed that the two sides would re-negotiate for an American troop presence in some form past that deadline. Iraq's top military commander has said U.S. troops should stay until Iraq's security forces can defend its borders — which he said could take until 2020.
The U.S. officially doesn't rule out an extension. Biden told American troops Thursday that the U.S. should make sure Iraq's stability and democracy are strong enough to make it "a country that was worthy of the sacrifices" American troops have undergone.
He also said the U.S. would continue to train and equip Iraqi forces beyond 2011, highlighting the continued uncertainty about the future of America's troop presence.