By LARA JAKES and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
BAGHDAD — The Obama administration is ready to play ball on keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this year. But for Iraq’s government, in the words of one lawmaker, the issue is like playing with fire.
No amount of advising, cajoling or even pushing by Washington so far has spurred Baghdad to decide if it really wants all 46,000 American troops currently in Iraq to leave by Dec. 31, as required by a security agreement. Negotiations between the two nations have not even started, and it likely will be weeks if not months more before they do.
Even if Iraq asks the U.S. to keep troops here, there are no guarantees Baghdad ultimately will let it happen. Iraq’s parliament almost certainly will have to agree, and lawmakers are leery of embracing the American military.
“It’s a fireball. No one can hold it,” Sadiq al-Rikabi, an influential Shiite Muslim lawmaker and ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Wednesday with a wan smile.
So far, al-Rikabi said, political enemies have used the troops quandary to taint their rivals: “The head of the political blocs want to throw it to another party to burn them.”
The U.S. has made clear that President Barack Obama is seeking to keep thousands of American forces in Iraq past 2011 for the sake of security — despite his campaign promise to bring all the troops home by the end of the year. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Tuesday in Washington, said “the United States will be willing to say yes” if Iraq asks for the troops to stay.
It’s widely believed that Baghdad will, in fact, ask. But so far, “there is no negotiation,” a senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy said Wednesday. “There is no formalized or even informal request.”
The White House is willing to keep 10,000 to 12,000 forces in Iraq for a limited time, according to a senior administration official in Washington. A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said the administration is weighing what the troops’ mission would be before setting a new deadline for them to go home.
A senior Iraqi lawmaker said the U.S. forces will remain on nine bases in hotspots across the nation and stay up to four years longer — or right before Obama, if re-elected in 2012, leaves office.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the internal government talks frankly.
Iraqi Kurds and most Sunni Muslim leaders want American forces to stay, as do many Shiite politicians.
In an interview Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said Iraq’s air force and navy are not ready to defend the nation’s air space or waters, leaving its lucrative oil exports vulnerable.
Within Iraq, security forces are still battling an active if weakened al-Qaida. They also have to contend with Shiite militia attacks on politicians and security forces, and the specter of ethnic violence between Kurds and Arabs over disputed oil-rich lands in the north.
But keeping American forces in Iraq risks the political — and potentially lethal — wrath of two of al-Maliki’s most powerful if uneasy Shiite allies: Iran and the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Prodded by Iran, al-Sadr put aside years of fighting with al-Maliki and provided the crucial support to let the prime minister keep his job in a coalition government after national elections in 2010 resulted in no clear winner. Al-Sadr’s supporters now control key government agencies and have threatened to revolt if the U.S. troops they term “occupiers” remain in Iraq in 2012.
Such a revolt could spill over into sectarian violence, which al-Sadr’s militia appears all too eager to re-ignite. Thousands of Sadrists are expected to rally Thursday in Baghdad in a show of might that likely will yield dire warnings to U.S. forces to get out by the end of the year.
Iran has made no secret of its rancor over U.S. forces on neighboring soil, and intelligence officials believe recent attacks on American soldiers in Iraq have been carried out by Shiite militias acting at Tehran’s behest.
Al-Maliki has worked to improve relations with Iran, the only other Shiite-led government in the Mideast. The neighboring nations fought a bloody eight-year war under Saddam Hussein’s regime, but Tehran has had growing influence over Iraq’s political and economic decisions during al-Maliki’s tenure as premier.
The senior U.S. Embassy official described a “large, uncomfortable feeling” among Iraqis over the prospect of U.S. troops staying. But opposition fueled by Iran, he said, “is a sustained, broad, all-lines-of-operation effort to basically hijack the Iraqi political system and ensure that we don’t stay.”
At the same time, Tehran has been feeding Baghdad’s rumor mill with reasons why it might agree to an extended U.S. military presence — providing good spin to save face if American troops stay. Among Iran’s top concerns, an allied Iraqi lawmaker said, is that Israel might use Iraq’s airspace to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities once U.S. forces leave.
The U.S. also is looking beyond Iraq’s borders in its political calculus of whether its military should stay or go.
Sandwiched between Iran and the Sunni-governed Mideast, Iraq is a fault line for tensions in a region roiled this year by popular unrest and, in Bahrain at least, sectarian fighting. And the U.S. worries that without its military in place, Iran will use Iraq as a byway to support Shiite militias in Syria and Lebanon.
The troops decision “has the ability to create a much bigger regional, as well as domestic, impact,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center think tank in Qatar. “It’s been brewing for some time, but it’s about to come to a head precisely at the same time things are going on in the region.”
With the stakes so high, Baghdad won’t rush to decide before lawmakers are able to build a strong consensus.
“The decision will be a national one, with the agreement of all political blocs, away from political haggling,” al-Shahristani said.
The Pentagon announced Tuesday that three new military units are rotating into Iraq this summer and fall to replace outgoing troops. All the forces are planning to leave by Dec. 31, as required under the current deadlines. But troops have been told to be ready to stay if Iraq asks for them.
It’s a decision that likely will come down to the wire — despite urging last month by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen for Iraq to make up its mind within weeks. The current security agreement was approved in 2008 by Iraq’s parliament only five weeks before it took effect.
“We do have deadlines, but if we’re expecting quick results and we push it too hard and don’t get a consensus, that is not a favorable situation,” Shaikh said.
Lara Jakes has covered national security in Washington and Baghdad for The Associated Press since 2005, and Qassim Abdul-Zahra has been reporting on politics in Iraq since 2003.