Iraqi politicians face the contentious question this year of whether to ask U.S. troops to stay beyond an end-of-2011 deadline for their departure. That decision has become far more complicated with the return to Iraq of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The future of U.S. troops in Iraq was a topic of talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Iraqi leaders Thursday during the first visit by a senior U.S. official since Iraq's new government was formed.
The case for an extension centers around concerns that Iraqi forces may not be ready to keep security. Many Sunnis want U.S. troops to stick around for their protection, fearing domination by the Shiite majority. Kurds see the Americans as a guarantee of their autonomous region in the north. And some in the party of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also want the U.S. forces to stay.
But al-Sadr, a Shiite who came home last week from nearly four years in voluntary exile in Iran, is a formidable obstacle. He immediately put the government on notice that he and his movement, which is a pivotal member of the ruling coalition, will not tolerate any lingering American troop presence.
"We heard a pledge from the government that it will expel the occupier, and we are waiting for it to honor its word," he said during a speech.
No decision on an extension will come at least until al-Maliki has chosen a defense minister. If Iraq requests an extension, the overriding question will be whether al-Sadr is willing to risk bringing down the government over it.
Under a deal agreed upon in 2008, the approximately 47,000 American troops still in the country must leave by the end of 2011. Privately, many in Iraq and the U.S. long assumed that the two sides would re-negotiate for an American troop presence in some form past that deadline. Iraq's top military commander has said U.S. troops should stay until Iraq's security forces can defend its borders — which he said could take until 2020.
The U.S. officially doesn't rule out an extension. Biden told American troops Thursday that the U.S. should make sure Iraq's stability and democracy are strong enough to make it "a country that was worthy of the sacrifices" American troops have undergone.
He also said the U.S. would continue to train and equip Iraqi forces beyond 2011, highlighting the continued uncertainty about the future of America's troop presence.
An aide to Biden said the vice president reiterated Washington's longtime position that the U.S. would listen to any request by the Iraqi government for troops to stay longer but that Baghdad has not asked. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Biden met Thursday with al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and other officials, but not with al-Sadr, in keeping with long-standing practice on both sides.
The topic had been sidelined for most of the past year, with Iraqi politicians deadlocked after national elections in March failed to produce a clear winner. But with al-Maliki's formation of a government, the issue is now under discussion.
Publicly, al-Maliki has rejected an extension, telling a November news conference and then The Wall Street Journal last month that there is no reason for U.S. troops to stay past the deadline.
But a lawmaker from al-Maliki's bloc said an American troop presence is likely to remain past 2011. He did not have specific information on how many, but said any remaining forces would help with specific tasks such as protecting Iraqi airspace, training Iraqi forces and logistics.
He acknowledged that such an extension would be "embarrassing" for the government, especially after al-Sadr's return. The lawmaker did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Al-Maliki faces a dilemma.
Asking for American help would be difficult politically, considering he won his new term only with al-Sadr's reluctant support. A senior Sadrist lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji, said al-Sadr returned in part to ensure that al-Maliki keeps his promise to stick by the deadline.
A longer-term presence would also infuriate Iraqis who are fed up with nearly eight years of warfare and American occupation.
But many quietly acknowledge that Iraq may not be ready for American forces to leave, given continued violence, sectarian divisions and political instability.
Bombings on Thursday near three Baghdad mosques — two Sunni and one Shiite — killed two people and underscored the security challenges that are likely to remain well beyond this year.
U.S. combat forces withdrew in August. The troops that remain continue to be involved in counterterrorism and training Iraqi forces. Even at a reduced size, they also provide a concrete foundation for a U.S.-Iraq alliance at a time when Iran is increasing its influence.
An extension would likely have Kurdish and possibly Sunni support.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni who became deputy prime minister in the new government, said it will take months to decide whether U.S. troops are needed past the deadline, suggesting he and others are waiting to see how the new government behaves and whether its factions can work together to keep security without American backup.
Azad Jundiani, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said "Kurdish public opinion supports the U.S. forces staying." But he said the Kurds would abide by whatever the government decides and predicted there would not be enough votes in parliament to support an extension.
For al-Maliki and many in the Shiite-majority government, a U.S. presence is a useful balance against Iran. Despite Iraqi officials' close ties with their mainly Shiite neighbor, there is a deep nationalist streak that bristles at too much Iranian influence.
John Nagl, a former U.S. Army officer who now heads the Center for a New American Security, said the need for American military help in the years to come is clear, especially to protect airspace. He estimated a force of 5,000 to 20,000 could do the job.
"It wouldn't take much more than one air base. It wouldn't have to be a very visible U.S. presence at all, with a low likelihood of U.S. casualties," he said.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, has played down any possibility of a further American combat troop presence. Jeffrey said there will be a security relationship between Iraq and the U.S. in the future. But he suggested it would be limited to a few dozen personnel attached to the embassy, tasked with assisting in the sale of U.S. military equipment to Iraqi forces and training them to use it.
"This is a normal part of a normal embassy in an area of the world where we have a large number of military sales and a robust security relationship, and it has nothing to do with stationing troops," he said.