US Troops Out of Iraqi Cities? Think Again

by , June 11, 2009

President Barack Obama’s brief mention of the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq in his now-celebrated Cairo address – 293 words out of the 6,000-word delivery – was smartly designed to make the current circumstances there very plain: it was George Bush’s war, it’s over, we leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

Obama got hearty applause when he said that and when he said that "we will honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012."

Unfortunately, the reality is more amorphous, if not deliberately confusing, like much of Obama’s foreign policy and war strategy these days.

Anyone who has been tracking the supposed plan for U.S. withdrawal of Iraq, as agreed to by the outgoing Bush administration and the Iraqi government in the status of forces agreement (SOFA), has been led in recent months down one desert rabbit hole to another. The national media seems incurious about where it all goes. Alice, too, wondered whether it was worth it "to ask" during her own plunge down the earthen tunnel: "No, it’ll never do to ask; perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere."

Just last week, within a 48-hour news period, readers were treated to two diametrically opposed headlines, one touting "U.S. Forces Out of Iraqi Cities by June 30," the other, the very next day, "U.S. Wants Sadr City Base Open After Deadline." Both quote U.S. military brass directly, albeit two different generals, but the whipsawing here suggests someone up top is taking it for granted that Americans – particularly that flighty media – aren’t paying much attention to Iraq at all.

So, through the din, lazy heads fix upon the first, less controversial of the two contradictory headlines, which affirms what the president wants to the world to hear: that the U.S. is getting out of Iraqi cities by the end of the month.

Except it isn’t entirely true. For those following bread crumbs like an abandoned Hansel or Gretel, it is difficult not to see that.

It all began with the meager morsels cast about by Gen. Raymond Odierno, who leads the U.S. forces in Iraq, in early spring. In a spate of press interviews in one week, he essentially suggested that the Americans had yet to decide whether to stay in some of the remaining urban hotbeds like Mosul and Baquba beyond the deadline.

“We’ve learned a lesson here over the last several years – that you have to clear an area, you have to have the force to hold it, and you have to allow the community then to rebuild itself. … If you rush your way through that, then the community will fall back into an insecure state,” said Odierno in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor published April 2.

“I still have flexibility inside of that timeline to make decisions on forces and where we use them, and I think that’s incredibly valuable as we move towards Iraqi sovereignty,” added Odierno.

Within 11 days of that report, Odierno was before cameras on CNN – apparently reined in and ready to clear things up – saying, "We continue to work with the government of Iraq so they can meet that timeline so that they are able to maintain stability after we leave," he said. "I still believe we’re on track with that."

In addition, Odierno played down earlier reports that he believed some 30,000 to 35,000 combat troops may remain in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline, which mandates the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country. On a scale of 1 to 10, he said, "I believe it’s a 10 that we will be gone by 2011."

From there, the headlines dutifully switched to, "Odierno Says U.S. Troops in Iraq’s Cities Up to Iraq" and "Odierno Certain That All U.S. Troops Will Be Out Of Iraq by 2011."

But then came some real details – the sticky, pesky stuff that tends to slip unacknowledged through the membrane of the fickle 24-hour news cycle. Citing military officials, the New York Times reported on April 27 that "the United States and Iraq will begin negotiating possible exceptions to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities, focusing on the troubled city of Mosul."

Everywhere else, the report continued, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities and towns by June 30 is "on schedule to finish" and that 100 combat outposts, patrol bases, and joint security stations will have been turned over to the Iraqis by that time.

But there is a catch. U.S. and Iraqi officials have agreed, the paper said, that Camp Victory, a sprawling five-base installation that houses 20,000 soldiers – many of them combat troops – 15 minutes outside Baghdad, would not be affected by the June deadline because technically, it is "outside the city." The same goes for Forward Operating Base Falcon, which typically houses 5,000 troops within Baghdad’s southern city limits. It, too, will reportedly remain without needing a waiver from the Iraqi government.

On May 4, the Associated Press quoted Iraqi government officials saying the June 30 deadline is "non-extendable" and they will not request that U.S. combat forces stay in any city – including troubled Mosul, where insurgent attacks have increased in recent months.

Odierno weighed in four days later with reporters at the Pentagon, reiterating that Mosul is indeed a trouble spot and the U.S. is still holding open the option to request an extension, despite the Iraqis’ seeming resolve on the issue. He said U.S. and Iraqi forces were in the middle of a 75-day counteroffensive "to clear the militants" out of Mosul. "We expect that to end here within about 30 to 45 days. And then there will be a decision to be made,” Odierno said.

"I think we’re on track," he added. "We should be in pretty good shape by the end of June."

In the meantime, on May 27, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told assembled Washington think-tankers and journalists that the U.S. could have combat troops in Iraq for the next decade – well beyond the SOFA agreement – and that the Army was planning for a "reality scenario" in which it has 10 combat brigades deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for at least 10 years.

Confused yet?

Three days later, the AP reported that U.S. and Iraqi officials "have tentatively agreed to keep a joint base on the edge of Baghdad’s Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, maintaining an American presence in a strategic area even after the June 30 deadline for U.S. combat troops to pull out of the capital." Increased violence and sectarian tensions were cited. About the same time, it was reported that the military was expanding bases in rural Iraq and even building new ones to accommodate "thousands" of combat troops who are being moved out of the cities but aren’t yet slated to go home.

Also, besides Camp Victory outside Baghdad, "large Marine bases in western Anbar province on the outskirts of Ramadi and Taqqadum, outside of Fallujah, will also remain," beyond the June deadline. As for Mosul, "U.S. troops will operate primarily from the Army’s Merez base on the outskirts of the city." Troops will avoid the deadline in Basra, too, by operating out of a space near the airport, just outside city limits, according to the AP.

This could all fall apart rather quickly as a  planned national referendum, which would give the Iraqi people an up or down vote on the SOFA agreement, is on track to take place this summer. The U.S. is lobbying against the July 30 date, hoping to push it back, according to a New York Times report on Wednesday. If SOFA fails to pass, there could be a demand for the withdrawal of U.S troops ahead of the 2011 date.

A Friendship That Knows No Deadlines

Falling even further below the radar is the special relationship between the U.S. special forces and their Iraqi counterparts, or better yet, offspring, as described in chilling detail by Shane Bauer for The Nation on June 3. The Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) "is probably the largest special forces outfit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces," writes Bauer.

Thanks to U.S. pressure, according to Bauer, the ISOF is residing under a newly created "Counter-Terrorism Bureau" under the direct control of the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, "independent of the military and police," the defense and interior ministries, and even the parliament.

Charges of abuse and torture – particularly against Sunnis – abound, while the ISOF is increasingly seen as Maliki’s private militia, and many fear he will use it to go after political enemies, not unlike Saddam Hussein’s elite death squad pre-2003. Unlike that group of trained killers, the ISOF is an American creation, and according Bauer, it is still "closely involved" with U.S. Special Forces "at every level," including planning and carrying out missions. One member of parliament critical of the ISOF called it "a replacement" for the Americans.

Bauer interviewed Gen. Simeon Trombitas, the head of the American ISOF effort in Iraq. He gives credence to what officials – including Obama – have hinted at from the beginning: that while U.S. combat troops leave Iraq, American special forces are expected to carry on there in some capacity, official and otherwise. "We are going to have a working relationship for a while," Trombitas said carefully.

A Long War, Ignored

Today, there are still over 134,000 U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq. There have been reports that some 16,000 are expected to return home by September. Beyond that, the numbers and movements are sketchy. For those who still care, there are bread crumbs of information and confusing plot twists – enough to get tangled in on the way to figuring out what’s really going on.

One thing is clear: despite Obama’s assurances in Cairo to the contrary, there will be U.S. combat troops all over the capital city of Baghdad, on the outskirts, and based just outside if not within the cities of Ramadi, Basra, Mosul, and others, after June 30. As Maj. Gen. David Perkins said in April, "We don’t want to rush failure here. This isn’t just, we’re going home. We’re just moving" (to other areas of Iraq).

But after six years of national attention on Iraq, Obama gives us his tacit permission to focus elsewhere. The fate of the Long War depends on it. The public must be actively supportive (which it is not) or at least disengaged for a longer occupation – if that is indeed what is in the cards – to work. Considering that less than 1 percent of the population has served or is serving in the wars overseas, the disengagement part won’t be difficult. People just need to be assured it’s okay to stop paying attention.

Just don’t be surprised when we finally land from that drop down the rabbit hole 10 years from now – thump, thump, thump – and find the U.S. still fighting in Iraq.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos