American troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 --but don't bet that all of them will leave.
There are several reasons to maintain a residual, combat-capable U.S. military presence in Iraq, the most obvious being the proxy war on Iraq waged by Iran's tyrannical regime.
That proxy war has gone on since 2003, but within the last year, as U.S. forces have withdrawn, Iranian troublemaking has increased.
The Obama administration has noticed. This week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a group of American soldiers in Iraq that Washington is "very concerned about Iran and the weapons they're providing to extremists in Iraq."
Panetta could have added, with certainty, that Iran provides Iraqi gangs, extremist militias, and al-Qaida remnants with money and political support. Iranian intelligence services and special forces may also be providing some of these groups with operational planning and targeting advice.
Iran's radical Islamic regime knows an Iraqi democracy on its western border threatens its very existence. Iran's mullahs fear Iraq's democracy because it gives the Iranian opposition Green Movement an authentic Middle Eastern model for democratic political action. Waging a proxy war on Iraq serves the mullahs' domestic political goal of repressing their own population.
Credit Panetta with being an Obama administration official who will publicly raise the prospect of keeping residual U.S. forces in Iraq. At the moment, Washington and Baghdad are engaged in a complex diplomatic tap dance. Both governments acknowledge the need to remain allies. Washington wants the Iraqi government to extend an invitation to keep U.S. military forces in Iraq, but the Iraqis are reluctant. Though the nation's two most prominent political leaders, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, continue their feud, there are indications both men think a U.S. military presence will help deter Iran. Radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr complicates Iraqi domestic politics. He wants the U.S. out right now. Sadr, however, is a violent bully who is little more than Iran's mouthpiece.
The Obama administration's mixed messages have also added to the diplomatic muddle. Candidate Barack Obama vowed to quit Iraq. He also promised Iran's tyrants unconditional negotiations. Burned by Iranian belligerence and hypocrisy, President Obama has slowly discovered that bugging out of Iraq isn't such a good idea.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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