BAGHDAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s decision to bring troops back from Iraq by the end of this year risks removing a buffer in a country still struggling with violence, sectarianism and pressure from neighbors in an unstable region.
More than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Washington and Baghdad were in discussions over keeping at least 3,000 American troops in Iraq as trainers. But talks stalled on the issue of immunity for American soldiers.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki did not have the political consensus to push immunity through the parliament even though in private many Iraqi leaders said they wanted some U.S. troop presence as a short-term guarantee of stability.
Violence has fallen sharply, but attacks by Sunni Islamist insurgents and rival Shi’ite militias still occur daily, and Maliki’s political power-sharing coalition is caught in infighting that hobbles its ability to govern effectively.
“It would be difficult for the United States to backtrack on the decision, but there is still a possibility that some troops will stay for training,” said Gala Riani at London-based IHS Global Insight.
“This will have repercussions for Iraqi security and for politics, the political groups within the government coalition are already at each others’ throats — as some wanted U.S. troops to stay.”
Around 40,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq, but they ended combat operations last year. They are mostly engaged in assisting Iraqi forces, who U.S. and local officials say are now able to contain the country’s stubborn insurgency.
But the two governments still need talks on how Iraqi forces can fill their capability gaps, including key air and maritime defense training, intelligence gathering and shifting to conventional warfare tactics from counter-insurgency.
“There will be trainers after 2011,” said Ali al-Moussawi, Maliki’s media advisor. “They did not discuss what type of trainers we will have... but we have agreed that the training will be done by the Americans.”
Maliki had offered Washington the possibility of more troops at the smaller training mission at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which may have around 300 troops, or through the NATO mission. But those were unlikely to offer Washington what it needs.
Washington will maintain a huge embassy in Baghdad and consular operations in Arbil in Kurdistan and the southern oil city Basra. Thousands of private contractors will also work as guards and trainers for Iraqi troops using U.S. hardware such as tanks and F-16 fighters.
A reduced U.S. military presence in Iraq also raises questions about the increasing influence of its neighbors.
Syria’s ongoing turmoil threatens instability along Iraq’s western frontier while in the north and east, rivals Turkey and Iran are vying for influence though investments and political competition.
Even with U.S. troops leaving, violence will not end as Sunni Islamists tied to al Qaeda hit out at local security forces and local government buildings to try to stir tensions and show Maliki’s government is unable to secure the country.
Shi’ite militias are targeting U.S. troops even as they pack up to leave around the country.
“Various groups may feel more emboldened to conduct attacks after December with the knowledge that they won’t be targeted with U.S. military operations in response,” said John Drake, senior risk consultant with security firm AKE Group.
Obama’s decision will be welcomed by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical, anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric who opposed U.S. military presence and whose militia once fought U.S. troops.
But the country’s Kurdish political blocs, who had pushed the hardest for a continued U.S. presence, will be concerned over lingering disagreements with Iraqi Arab leaders.
One key risk will be the areas disputed by the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country. Kurds and Iraqi Arabs differ over who controls oil areas adjacent to the Kurdish region.
U.S. troops had until recently been conducting joint operations with Kurdish and Iraqi forces as a way to build confidence. Many Kurdish leaders in particular believed a small U.S. military presence would have helped stop the area from becoming a possible flashpoint for violence after withdrawal.
“The prospects for Iraqi stability would be stronger with a continued U.S. presence,” said Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If they want us to leave, then of course we must. I don’t think this is in Iraq’s best interest or ours.”
Additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Giles Elgood