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2011 will be a turning point for U.S. military in Iraq

By Jomana Karadsheh and Joe Sterling, CNN
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Iraq: U.S. military preps for final year
  • Al-Maliki isn't enthusiastic about a U.S. presence after 2011
  • The new government can pursue a new security agreement
  • Deadly violence has declined

(CNN) -- Next year at this time, the United States is to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq, the scheduled end of a turbulent chapter in U.S. and Iraqi military history.

Even though the war is winding down, unrest there is persisting, with civilians and troops still dying in attacks -- and the steady violence raises the question about whether U.S. deployment could possibly continue into 2012 and beyond.

"What is important is the long-term relationship," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for U.S. Forces-Iraq. "It's not dependent on the presence, the full-time presence of U.S. troops here, but I think that our partnership with Iraq and in particular, the Iraqi military, is critical to our interests, the U.S. interests in the region."

"The security agreement mandates complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and the end of U.S. Forces-Iraq's mission by the end of 2011," he said. "We have lived up to every part of the agreement and we fully intend to live up to the complete withdrawal as well."

The security agreement mandates complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and the end of U.S. Forces-Iraq's mission by the end of 2011
--U.S. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan
  • Iraq War
  • Baghdad
  • Iraq
  • United States

At present, Iraqi leaders haven't endorsed extending the bilateral pact. U.S. and Iraqi officials appear confident that U.S. troops -- who barreled into Iraq in March 2003 and have been there ever since -- will be able to depart an Iraq secure enough to defend itself.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who grabbed another term as prime minister following a bruising political fight for power after the March elections, acknowledged that the government could choose to reach a new agreement with the United States.

But in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, he dampened speculation about a possible extension of a troop presence.

"This agreement is sealed and at the time we designated it as sealed and not subject to extension," he said. Many observers agree that al-Maliki is staunchly against an extension because of his political alliance with anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

One key issue over the next year is whether Iraqi troops will be able to handle security without U.S. forces. The U.S. military has steadily drawn down its forces and ended its combat mission in Iraq on August 31.

The U.S. military's current mission in Iraq is training, advising, assisting and equipping Iraqi forces. It will begin shifting some operations, such as police training, to the U.S. State Department.

Under other bilateral agreements outside the security pact, the United States will have "a very robust security agenda," said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. The embassy in Baghdad will have an office for security cooperation with about 80 to 90 military personnel who would handle the current military training program, he said.

Buchanan is "very optimistic" about the Iraqi forces the American troops -- now numbering under 50,000 -- will leave behind.

"I am thankful about where they are because they are doing a great job across the board with internal security, but I am also optimistic about the future, because I have watched them grow and develop over the years," Buchanan said.

One good sign of future stability is that the deadly eruptions of violence -- like the suicide bombings recently in the Iraqi city of Ramadi -- are fewer.

The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq this year as of Thursday totals 60, by far the lowest yearly toll of the war, according to a CNN count.

Iraqi Body Count, a group that tracks and analyzes civilian casualty trends in Iraq, said the 2010 civilian death toll in Iraq "is the lowest since the war began" -- at least 3,976 deaths as of December 25.

The group said the end of the U.S. combat mission "was followed by an immediate halving in the number of civilian deaths between August and September, and lowered levels have continued into the winter months (with December so far showing the lowest toll of the year)."

"The within-year trend for 2010 is somewhat more hopeful," IBC said, adding that "it remains to be seen whether this improvement will persist into 2011."

At the same time, the report presents a troubling scenario.

"Taken as a whole and seen in the context of immediately preceding years, the 2010 data suggest a persistent low-level conflict in Iraq...," the report said.

Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director of the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group, agrees that the political situation is influencing al-Maliki, who is not "showing any great enthusiasm" for a follow-up agreement with the United States.

"The reason clearly is that it would be very difficult for him to mobilize political support for it. It is a scenario opposed by Iran and the Sadrists, and is fully embraced only by the Kurds, while everyone else will tell you one thing in private while saying the opposite in public," Hiltermann said.

Hiltermann thinks the two sides might decide to negotiate a follow-on agreement that "would cover the activities of and protections for U.S. troops, which could number from 10,000 to 25,000, judging from noises emanating from the Pentagon."

"Because of the difficulty in gaining parliamentary approval, I think the more likely way forward for Maliki now is to forgo such a follow-on agreement and instead work out a military partnership with the United States that does not involve ground forces. This is the challenge during the coming 12 months," he said.

Iraq's political stability is better now than it has been throughout the year, when quarreling lawmakers weren't able to form a government after the March elections. In recent weeks, that stalemate ended.

Noting that an inclusive government in Iraq would signal political stability, Hiltermann says it appears that Iraqi forces will be able to handle internal threats "at least as long as there is no breakdown in the political process."

"As for external threats, there are none on the horizon, and this gives Iraqi forces the opportunity to build out, with U.S. support, so that over time they will be able to defend airspace and borders," he said.

The IBC cites Mosul and Baghdad as Iraq's two most violent cities. On the streets of Baghdad, only a few people would tell CNN that they are worried that the United States is leaving -- despite the fact that many have been relieved by the close proximity of U.S. troops.

"The American troops are only here to protect us now," a man named Ali told CNN.

"The situation isn't stable. You don't know what will happen tomorrow or the day after. I feel that if U.S. troops leave, things will go back to what they were before, massacres and killings."