BAGHDAD — With more than two years left in the slow, regimented ending to a chaotic war, new rules placing tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops under virtual house arrest on their bases mean the American military increasingly finds itself a symbolic force in Iraq.
Whether it’s symbolic of a problem or a solution depends on whom you ask.
Many inside and outside the U.S. military are now calling for the United States to hasten its withdrawal from this still-fragile country. They point to a newly assertive Iraqi national government that has significantly curtailed the U.S. forces’ mission, an Iraqi public largely hostile to U.S. troops and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan urgently seeking more soldiers to wage the increasingly intractable war there.
About 130,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq — twice the size of the force in Afghanistan — but many have been moved from the combat outposts that were so key to Gen. David Petraeus’ "surge" strategy. Instead, under the terms of a security agreement worked out between the U.S. and the Iraqi government that pulled back American troops from Iraqi cities, the U.S. forces remain largely confined to sprawling bases resembling fortified towns, such as Baghdad’s Victory Base Complex.
Generally forbidden to patrol, the troops fill their days with training, maintaining equipment and packing up unneeded material for shipment out of Iraq.
Iraqi security forces still have the option to conduct joint patrols with Americans or to request their help, but it almost never happens. American troops are almost invisible in Iraqi cities, moving in the dead of night, and then only with Iraqi permission.
The U.S. is providing behind-the-scenes help with intelligence, training and air support, but day-to-day security is almost entirely an Iraqi enterprise.
"The thing is that we don’t really need the Americans to help us in the cities," said Lt. Gen. Ali Qaidan Majeed, commander of Iraqi ground forces.
U.S. Army Col. Timothy Reese, chief of the Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team, argued in a recent memo titled "It’s Time for the U.S. to Declare Victory and Go Home" that the United States has done all it can for Iraq and should accelerate its scheduled withdrawal from the country to August 2010 — 16 months earlier than now planned.
"As the old saying goes, ‘guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,’ " Reese wrote. "Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose."
Reese continued: "Our combat operations are currently the victim of circular logic. We conduct operations to kill or capture violent extremists of all types to protect the Iraqi people and support the [Iraqi government]. The violent extremists attack us because we are still here conducting military operations."
In Baghdad, many troops echo Reese’s concerns, privately questioning how much more the U.S. can offer the Iraqi security forces. But they say that expressing such views publicly would threaten their military careers.
"I agree with [Reese] 100 percent, but you can’t say that out loud," said one officer who has worked closely with Iraqi security forces and who asked to remain anonymous.
‘Rethink the mission’
Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst and author of the Brookings Institution’s authoritative Iraq Index, agrees that the U.S. is overmanned for its new, limited missions.
But O’Hanlon does not endorse accelerating the withdrawal as quickly as Reese, citing the U.S. role in bolstering intelligence and training and mediating ethnic tensions in northern Iraq.
"It is true, at the moment we have too many troops for the missions we’re being allowed to perform," O’Hanlon said. "However, the right solution might be to rethink the mission set and consider at least temporarily expanding it somewhat."
U.S. commanders are increasingly walking a political tightrope, praising the competence of Iraqi forces and downplaying their own security role while simultaneously endorsing the decision to keep a mid-sized city’s worth of troops on standby. Some speculate that the troops are being kept as backup for an expected increase in violence during Iraq’s national elections, scheduled for January.
Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of Multi-National Corps–Iraq, said at a recent news conference that there are no plans to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal.
"We’re happy with our current schedule; we think our strategy is sound," Jacoby said. "We’re enabling and assisting [the Iraqis] as they ask. They don’t need our combat forces in the city."
Yet, a recent spike in violence, punctuated by devastating truck bombs last month outside two Iraqi ministries in Baghdad that killed about 100 people, has renewed doubts about the ability of Iraqi security forces to deal with an insurgency that appears bent on rekindling sectarian violence.
August was one of the deadliest months for Iraqi civilians in the past year, according to an Associated Press tally.
There is also concern about continuing violence in northern areas claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, where insurgents have staged bombings in Kurdish towns in hopes of triggering ethnic reprisals.
Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has proposed a more active role for U.S. troops there, including trilateral patrols grouping Kurdish, Arab and American soldiers. But that idea is still in the planning stage and Iraq is not much nearer to solving the territorial dispute than it was at the beginning of the war.
Many U.S. troops who have worked closely with their Iraqi counterparts scoff at the idea that the Iraqis are capable of standing up to the insurgency, citing infiltration, corruption and a general lack of discipline. One lieutenant in Baghdad said his Iraqi counterpart openly skims between 20 and 30 percent of his soldiers’ salaries off the top, a practice difficult to track in Iraq’s cash economy.
Despite his confidence that his troops can stand on their own, Majeed, the Iraqi ground forces commander, says he still needs U.S. backup, even leaving the door open to a longer-than-planned U.S. commitment if Iraqi forces prove unready by the time remaining U.S. combat forces pull out.
The agreement between Washington and Baghdad calls for the withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of August 2010 and of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
"If it doesn’t happen by 2011, we would have to find a new mechanism to work with the Americans," he said.
In the end, the U.S. may not have much say in the matter.
Iraqi voters are scheduled to vote in January whether to rescind the status of forces agreement that allows the U.S. military to operate in the country. The Iraqi parliament would then need to ratify the results of the referendum and order the complete U.S. withdrawal to be sped up by a year.
The outcome of that popular vote is not in much doubt. With the exception of the Kurdish north, anti-American sentiments are widespread in Iraq. Iraqis may be unsure of their country’s fledgling security forces, but they have grown increasingly weary of the U.S. presence, which many remember for heavy-handedness and the daily frustrations of passing through checkpoints and enduring long traffic jams behind slow-moving military convoys.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the same time as the January referendum, and candidates are finding anti-occupation platforms popular with Iraqis.
Elected officials and military commanders frequently challenge the Americans. For example, U.S. convoys are now regularly stopped at Iraqi checkpoints, a source of irritation for many American troops.
If Iraqis do decide to boot out the U.S. a year ahead of schedule, it would require a complete focus on the logistics of leaving at the expense of other tasks, such as sharing intelligence and training, said Brig. Gen. Heidi Brown, who is overseeing the exodus of U.S. equipment and troops.
"Is [a rapid redeployment] doable? Yes, but you pay the price," she said.
During a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would follow the lead of Iraqi officials regarding the timetable for the pullout.
"Whatever the Iraqi people decide," Biden told reporters, "we will abide by it."