To meet June deadline, US and Iraqis redraw city borders
'What is a city' is one question the US and Iraq must answer as they try to balance a requirement that US combat forces withdraw from cities next month and the need for US help to maintain security.
Except that Iraqi and American military officials have decided it's not. As the June 30 deadline for US soldiers to be out of Iraqi cities approaches, there are no plans to relocate the roughly 3,000 American troops who help maintain security in south Baghdad along what were the fault lines in the sectarian war.
"We and the Iraqis decided it wasn't in the city," says a US military official. The base on the southern outskirts of Baghdad's Rasheed district is an example of the fluidity of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreed to late last year, which orders all US combat forces out of Iraqi cities, towns, and villages by June 30.
"We consider the security agreement a living document," says a senior US commander. With six weeks to go, US and Iraqi commanders are sitting down in joint security committees to determine how they can comply with the decree that all US combat forces withdraw from populated areas by the end of June and still maintain the requirement to assist Iraq in fighting the insurgency and maintaining security and stability.
"[The Iraqis are] clear in their intention, less clear in their implementation," says the senior military official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Complexity of operating under SOFA
The security agreement, which took effect five months ago and charts the US-Iraqi relationship for years to come, is also being tested in murkier waters, such as the US right to self-defense.
A US-led raid in the southern Iraqi city of Kut last month, in which an Iraqi woman was killed in the crossfire, prompted protests in the streets. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the operation a crime and demanded that the American soldiers involved be turned over to Iraqi courts, saying the raid violated the terms of the security agreement.
US officials say they had valid warrants for the operation targeting suspected members of Iranian-funded Shiite militias involved in weapons smuggling. One suspect was killed in the raid and six others detained before Iraqi authorities ordered their release.
One US military official said that although Iraqi authorities had been notified of the raid in advance, those authorities maintained they had not approved it. He said the US side believed it was exercising its right to self-defense under the agreement when the raid turned violent.
The US military offered condolences and was believed to have paid compensation to the family of the woman killed.
"Kut shone a brighter light on the complexity of what we are facing," says the senior US commander.
US extension in volatile areas?
Senior Iraqi military officials are expected to recommend to Mr. Maliki that US combat forces remain in those areas to help fight an ongoing insurgency. Maliki publicly has said he will not extend the deadline but privately is believed to be willing to consider it. As commander in chief of the Iraqi Security Forces, Maliki has the final decision on whether to ask US forces to stay.
Some US and Iraqi officials suspect that his hard-line rhetoric is almost purely for political purposes in a country where people are widely opposed to the continued presence of US forces. The Iraqi parliament voted to approve the SOFA late last year only after linking it to a referendum this summer which would allow Iraqis to vote on whether US troops should leave sooner than the end of 2011.
With Maliki's public insistence that there will be no extension for US forces, plans for the promised referendum appear to have quietly disappeared.
"We promise a lot of things we don't deliver," says one Iraqi member of parliament when asked about the poll.
'We've never known how to be guests'
Apart from the issue of designating US bases as inside or outside cities, Iraqi authorities are also approving the existence of combat troops within select joint security stations in and around Baghdad to be able to maintain security in places that have been key to the reduction in violence, a US military official says.
Although the mission for most brigades and battalions is not expected to substantially change after June 30, US military officials have stopped using the term forward operating base in favor of the more benign-sounding contingency operating site.
The SOFA and a wider strategic framework agreement set out a relationship between the US and Iraq very different from that of the military occupation of the past six years.
"We have acknowledged that the government of Iraq leads the nation. We are their guests," says the senior US commander.
"We've never known how to be guests," says a US military official in the field.
US-Iraqi partnership: 'A delicate choreography'
One of the challenges of that new relationship is how the US can continue to wield influence on key decisions without being seen to do so.
"For so long we have been one of the driving forces here ... it is such a hard habit to break," says a senior US State Department official. "I think we need to do everything we can not to make ourselves an issue."
As well as security, he says, the United States still has a role to play in promoting Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, tamping down Arab-Kurdish tensions, and fostering effective governance and economic growth – all of which have an impact on security.
"It has to be seen here as doing it quietly ... so that you are not doing things for the Iraqis, the Iraqis are doing things for themselves but with your help and we remain in the shadows.... It's a very delicate choreography," adds the State Department official.
US concern: Political turmoil after 2010 elections
All of that is being worked out against the backdrop of two crucial deadlines: August 2010 for all combat troops to be out of Iraq and the end of 2011 for US forces to withdraw completely. In between, there are key Iraqi events that will likely lead to increased tensions, including national elections planned for January.
"We are planning against a finite end and a finite timeline from a US perspective," says the senior commander, saying that a potential security vacuum amid the political turmoil of a new Iraqi government next year is one of the coalition's biggest concerns.
Despite Maliki's hard-line statements rejecting a continued US troop presence here, many US and Iraqi officials say they continue to believe the two sides will come up with a new arrangement after the current agreement expires.
"If our long-term goal is strategic partnership in Iraq, I would suspect beyond 2011 we would have some kind of long-term presence here," says the senior US commander.