Iraq’s leaders are beginning a public debate on whether to ask the American military to leave a contingent of forces there past the end of this year in a test of the country’s leaders to resolve the contentious issue through political debate – or violence.

May 24, 2011

Iraq’s leaders are beginning a public debate on whether to ask the American military to leave a contingent of forces there past the end of this year in a test of the country’s leaders to resolve the contentious issue through political debate – or violence.

Under a three-year-old agreement, all American forces are to leave the country by December 31, 2011. The U.S. military is planning accordingly, expecting to reduce its force dramatically by this fall. But a new political debate has taken hold in Iraq as to whether some of those forces should stay.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently raised the issue by putting the decision on the Iraqi parliament. Maliki, a Shiite, said that if there is consensus among parliamentarians on the issue of whether an American force should stay, then he would support it, saying such an outcome is the “mechanism of democracy.”

The move was seen as politically astute. Taking the debate to the parliament threatens to expose political parties who have been saying one thing privately in diplomatic circles, versus their public statements.

“If there is a request [for an extended stay], then Maliki won’t bear all of the political fallout,” says USIP’s Sean Kane.

There had been much reluctance to even touch the issue because it has long been seen as a hard-to-do that could weaken Iraq’s fragile democracy. But some believe Maliki, who likely conferred with Kurdish and Sunni leaders first, demonstrated courageous political leadership by raising it, and thus propelling it into the public square for debate. If American forces were asked to stay, their numbers would likely range between 10,000 and 15,000 and would stay only in an advisory role to the Iraqi military.

Some Shiite leaders have expressed support for the U.S. to stay, and Kurds have long supported an extended U.S. presence. But there is likely no public consensus on the issue among Sunnis. While the Sunni minority is seen as generally in favor of an extended American stay, Sunnis take some political risk in declaring that support publicly – at least for now. And recent demonstrations in Mosul, the Sunni majority city in the north, suggest there are still strong views among Sunnis that the Americans should leave.

For a long time, the political strategy of the Sunni party has been to galvanize public support by taking the position that Americans should leave. However, as the deadline approaches, there is a growing realization that they could be the most vulnerable if the timeline is followed.

Much of the debate turns on Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who this year returned from a self-imposed exile in Iran. Sadr, who led one of the fiercest anti-American movements within Iraq, still foments such sentiments among his followers and maintains much influence across the country.

“I think he is a significant player,” Kane says.

“On this issue, he will have a lot of support; he can be loud and noisy and provocative on this,” says USIP’s Bill Taylor of Sadr.

Sadr has said that if the American military stays in Iraq, he would instruct his Mahdi army to once again take up arms to resist what he has long termed the American occupation.

In a recent sermon in May in the southern city of Najaf, Sadr called for Iraqis to march and demonstrate against the American presence. “We will not accept the occupation’s troops staying, not even for one day after the end of this year,” Sadr said, according to press reports.

Yet he backed off any order for armed violence, and has hinted that if all of Iraq’s political factions agree the Americans should stay then he would abide by that outcome. “If that’s true, that would be a marked improvement in the political scene in Iraq,” Taylor says.

There are more signs Iraqi leaders welcome the public debate. Kurdish leader Barham Saleh, for example, has urged the Iraqi military, which has long supported the U.S. military staying and maintains influence across Iraq, to speak out. Kane, who returned from Iraq in early May, said it has begun to do just that.

It’s still far from clear how the debate will play out, though one thing is for sure: Iraqis will likely draw the debate out until the last minute, USIP experts say.

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