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Leaving Iraq? Really?

This week President Obama announced his plan for withdrawal from Iraq. While some parts of his speech were very welcome – in particular both his recognition of the desperate situation of the displaced Iraqis and his statement that all – not just all combat – troops would be out in 2011.  As Raed Jarrar notes, this is very good news.

At the same time, the level of control Obama has granted the Petraues/Odierno team over the withdrawal is worrying– in particular, his willingness to allow them to keep the bulk of US forces in Iraq through the next election – and then some.

Here’s why:

Nowhere in the speech (nor in the various commentaries) have I seen a mention of our plans for withdrawing US forces to bases this June as required by the SOFA.  This requirement – meant to get US forces out of the day to day active involvement in Iraq security seems to be forgotten – and given Odierno’s statements even as the SOFA was being signed that we could ignore that requirement – why not?

Nowhere in the speech is a mention of the referendum promised by the US and Maliki to get Iraqi parliamentary approval of the SOFA. This vote was designed to give the Iraqi people a say in how long we stay in their country – and if they vote the SOFA down, we are required to leave completely.  Are we going to honor such a vote?

In the speech, Obama shifted the timeline for withdrawing combat troops from 16 to 19 months. Note that he had never promised no residual troops beyond that time and normally I would see the time shift as relatively trivial but the reasoning for that shift is where I begin to worry.

As Gareth Porter explains in his reporting on Friday:

The [Washington] Post reported the "senior officials" as suggesting that the reason for both recommendations was to avoid "jeopardizing Iraq’s still-fragile security". However, a source who was close to Obama during the campaign and maintains ties to his advisers said Obama’s acceptance of the 19-month plan was to "defuse the conflict with the Pentagon".

This effort by Obama to pacify the revolting generals – he is, for example, allowing them to set the timetable for actual combat troop withdrawal which they have made clear they do no intend to even start until after the Iraqi elections scheduled (but likely to be delayed) for December – leads to very dangerous territory given what we know of Odierno’s intentions:

The fact that the commanders have the option to nullify Obama’s pledge to removal all combat brigades raises serious questions about whether he has given up control over his Iraq policy…

Obama did not refer to the possibility that combat brigades would remain in the country after Aug. 31, 2010, but Defence Secretary Robert Gates admitted as much in a question and answer session with reporters after the speech…

In a teleconference with reporters Friday afternoon, Gates appeared to confirm indirectly that he and field commanders have discussed either keeping combat brigades in Iraq but calling them "non-combat" forces or actually sending new combat brigades to Iraq from the United States during the drawdown of the brigades now in Iraq.

A reporter asked Gates, "You have said they’re not going to be combat brigades, but are you going to take combat brigades that are in the United States and sort of rename them, redesignate them, or are you going to create new units for this specific mission?"

Gates first sidestepped the question entirely. "[W]ith respect to the 35,000 to 50,000," he said, "I think that that’s a question probably better directed at General Odierno." But he then added, "[I]n terms of whether those are new units or whether they are re-missioned units that are already there, I think remains to be seen."

CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin, reflecting the leaks from Pentagon officials, reported Feb. 24 that the residual force would be organised in "training and assistance brigades" that would be capable of conducting combat operations and calling air strikes from carrier or land-based aircraft. In a comment to CBS News Political Hotsheet, Martin said the units would be "fully combat capable", suggesting that they would be drawn from combat brigades.

Porter also asks if  “U.S. pilots and planes will be part of the residual force after August 2010” and writes” The silence on that matter suggests that U.S. airpower will continue to participate in combat, despite the supposed end of the U.S. combat mission.”

On the same day as Obama’s speech, we already have the “let’s stay in Iraq” crew laying the groundwork for a continuing combat presence – as Cernig writes at Newshoggers:

— Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack argue that the Iraq SOFA agreement and the wishes of Iraqis shouldn’t be considered binding and that US troops must stay in Iraq for years…"Having just returned from a trip to the country arranged by the top American commander there, Gen. Ray Odierno". You don’t say!

O’Hanlon and Pollack’s concern troll comments – which at times border on racism with comments about “visions of seventh-century caliphates” – are another installment in the Odierno/Petraeus campaign to stay in Iraq … well, apparently forever.

So long as the Obama administration focuses on pacifying the generals rather than listening to the desire of Iraqis (and American voters) for an end to occupation, we need to keep asking questions and reminding the administration that at the very least, we expect adherence to the SOFA requirements – including support for the Iraqi popular referendum on SOFA and its results.

 Update: I am hearing that one source has been told by the Armed Services Committee that the June withdrawal will take place. More on this as I get it.

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Siun is a proud Old Town resident who shares her home with two cats and a Great Pyrenees. She’s worked in media relations and on the net since before the www, led the development of a corporate responsibility news service, and knows what a mult box is thanks to Nico. When not swimming in the Lake, she leads a team working on sustainability tools.

Email: media dot firedoglake at gmail dot com