In November 2008, representatives of U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which established the operational and legal framework for U.S. soldiers and their civilian counterparts in Iraq. The key line in the agreement was contained in Article 24: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.” In a major speech a few months later, newly inaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama affirmed that he intended to uphold the deadline.
But it is proving difficult for the U.S. military to say goodbye to Iraq, after what has now amounted to a 21-year engagement, including nearly 4,000 days of no-fly zones and 3,000 days of stability operations since the first Gulf War. U.S. defense officials have recently begun begging and bluffing to compel Iraq’s government to ask the United States to stay. In April, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave Maliki an ultimatum: “Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some U.S. troops to stay,” he warned, “it needs to start soon -- very soon -- should there be any chance of avoiding irrevocable logistics and operational decisions we must make in the coming weeks.”
Yet Baghdad seems unable to make up its mind. Some political leaders privately lobby for U.S. troops to stay, but only in training and advising roles. Still, most Iraqis and many members the Iraqi parliament are weary of a continued American military presence, which is problematic since U.S. officials insist that an updated SOFA be approved by the parliament. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had requested that Baghdad’s fractious political blocs decide by last Saturday whether to ask for an extension of U.S. troop presence into next year. They were unable to reach a consensus and have postponed additional negotiations on the topic “until further notice.”