WASHINGTON — The U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially comes to an end Tuesday, 2,722 days after American-led troops stormed across the border from Kuwait. The remaining 49,000 U.S. troops are supposed to depart by the end of next year.
The American mission is far from over, however, and it may have to be extended, according to former senior U.S. officials, foreign diplomats and private analysts.
Iraq's leaders, worried about the country's stability and the designs of powerful neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, may ask for at least some American troops to remain as an insurance policy, Iraqi and U.S. observers said.
"There is a reasonable probability the Iraqis, once they've got a new government in place, will reassess" and request a change to the 2008 status of forces agreement, said Ryan Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009.
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"I hope we'll be responsive," Crocker said in an interview, arguing that there's much left to do in Iraq.
President Barack Obama, who'll mark the end of the combat mission with an Oval Office speech Tuesday, hasn't said how he'll treat such an Iraqi request.
"We've made a commitment ... to have our troops out by the end of 2011, and that's a commitment we intend to keep," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said this week.
If the Iraqis ask, however, "it would be damn hard to say no," said Daniel Serwer, a vice president of the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace.
The uncertainty over next year's deadline underscores Iraq's precarious position as America's attention shifts to this fall's elections, domestic economic issues and the growing war in Afghanistan.
Iraq is better off in many ways since 2007, when a "surge" of U.S. combat brigades, a change in military strategy and payments to Sunni Muslim tribal leaders to fight al Qaida in Iraq stemmed an incipient sectarian civil war.
Violence is down dramatically, raw sectarian feelings appear to have ebbed and political horse-trading is the norm.
Iraq isn't as well off as U.S. officials had hoped it would be by late August 2010, however, a deadline that Obama himself set and that isn't stipulated in the U.S.-Iraqi forces agreement. Many things have improved, but the political system remains deadlocked.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading moderate Republican voice on foreign policy, said Friday that the timing of Obama's speech was unfortunate given Iraq's state of flux. It reflects not so much realities on the ground as the president's need to show the public, and the liberal wing of his party, that he's made good on a campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, Lugar said.
Asked whether the artificial timeline is a mistake, the senator replied: "Probably." He spoke in an interview taped for C-SPAN.
Officials had hoped that Iraq, which held elections five months ago, would form a government before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan started Aug. 11. That didn't happen. Basic services such as electricity are spotty, and there's no agreement on divvying up Iraq's oil and gas riches, and no resolution of territorial disputes between Arabs and Kurds.
Many of the problems stem from weaknesses in Iraq's 2005 Constitution. It lacks deadlines for political party leaders to form a government and leaves the president and the judiciary powerless to take charge in case of a stalemate.
"The constitution was written too early, by people grasping for power," said a senior Iraqi diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. The result is a maze of ambiguities that "would be comical if it was not causing so much pain."
Further, in a worrying sign on the security front, more Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been killed in attacks this month than at any time since September 2008, according to data from the website icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In news briefings and congressional testimony, Obama administration officials tend to cautiously accentuate the positive.
Colin Kahl, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, said the United States was wary of events that could re-spark a Sunni insurgency, such as mistreatment of the Sunni fighters who battled al Qaida in Iraq or exclusion of the secular al Iraqiya faction from Iraq's next government. "The good news is, we don't judge any of those prospects as very high," Kahl said.
"You sometimes hear American officials in kind of unguarded moments say we're on the five-yard line and we know it's going to be hard to put the ball in the end zone but, by God, we just got to do it. My feeling is, no, we're probably more like on the 40, and we might be on our 40. There's a long way to go," said Kenneth Pollack, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.
Obama and his aides have cautioned that the Iraq mission isn't over. "The hard truth is, we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq," the president told a Disabled American Veterans conference on Aug. 2.
More such reminders are needed, former Ambassador Crocker said.
"It is important that what Americans hear (is), there is good progress ... but we have major interests, and a major commitment going forward," he said. "Emphasizing those latter points is important."
American soldiers aside, the Obama administration is executing an ambitious transformation of the U.S. mission in Iraq away from warfare toward more mundane matters such as strengthening government institutions.
That will mean a growth in the number of U.S. diplomatic posts, civilian government employees in Iraq and contractors to support them when the American troops leave. The State Department is due to take over the training of Iraqi police from the Pentagon in fall 2011.
The cost, several billion dollars, is minor compared with the price tag of the Iraq war or the annual defense budget, but eye-popping for the State Department. Congressional approval isn't a foregone conclusion, and the department already has had to scrap one of five planned diplomatic posts, in Iraq's Diyala province.
"Do we spend (billions) to protect a $700 billion investment, or do we not?" asked Serwer, who was the executive director of the 2006 congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, which was charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and recommending ways to proceed. "Nickeling and diming isn't what I'd be doing in Iraq today."
In an appearance earlier this month at the Institute of Peace, outgoing Ambassador Christopher Hill, who was Crocker's successor, said a special U.S.-Iraqi relationship was possible in the years ahead, but would depend "on our own people's willingness to see Iraq more than a war, and rather as a country."
"It's going to depend on our willingness to work, and to stay the course," he said.
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