Policy Brief: Extending the U.S. Military Role in Iraq

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POLICY BRIEF: Extending The U.S. Military Role In Iraq

By Ramzy Mardini and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed in 2008 by outgoing President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, requires the U.S. military to completely withdraw from Iraq no later than December 31, 2011. However, Iraq is failing to maintain internal security, continues to experience serious external defense deficiencies, and has unresolved political disagreements that could threaten stability.  The national security interests of the United States and Iraq require extending the SOFA and retaining a smaller but still substantial U.S. military footprint in Iraq.  The U.S. has signaled its willingness to extend its presence if requested by Iraq. Although Iraq’s leaders increasingly recognize the necessity of extending the Status of Forces Agreement to permit U.S. military involvement beyond 2011, political obstacles have precluded them from initiating a domestic debate on extending the SOFA. As a result, it is necessary for the United States to take on a proactive and leading role when engaging with Iraq’s leaders, and to communicate the importance and value of a new security agreement. 





The debate on the upcoming U.S. withdrawal from Iraq captured the attention of Iraq’s political mainstream following the April 2011 visit by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Immediately after, tens of thousands of loyalists of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr flooded the streets in Baghdad to mark the eighth anniversary of the ousting of Saddam Hussein, while demanding for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the year’s end. The Sadrists threatened to reinstate the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia.  A wave of political assassinations followed this spring.  Although the perpetrators are unknown, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - Qods-Force used the same drive-by assassination tactics in 2007 and 2008.  Iraqi politicians and generals, therefore, face serious and increasing political and security risks should they support an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.    Short-lived, high-profile visits by senior American officials may, therefore, not suffice to convince Iraqi political leaders to take the risk of asking to extend the status of forces agreement. 

Two overarching problems reduce the likelihood that the Iraqis can respect to a SOFA renewal. First, because Iraq’s political parties are fragmented, Iraqi leaders lack the capacity and political will to lead on renegotiating the SOFA with the United States. At this moment, Iraq’s political actors neither believe that they are responsible for confronting the issue, nor perceive that the benefits for leading as outweighing the risks for publicly disclosing their supportive position. As a consequence, a stalemate exists in Iraq on moving the debate forward.   Second, the negotiations for a new security agreement are bound to be shaped by the politics and interests of multiple domestic and regional players.  The complexity of the negotiations will make them slow moving, at best, and they will not be completed quickly enough to ensure that the military can maintain the necessary footprint.