Threats from unchecked Shiite militias are a concern as Washington and Baghdad debate keeping a U.S. presence.
Leaving Afghanistan: As part of President Obama’s drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, one of the first groups of soldiers to leave boarded a plane Thursday at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul. The members of Task Force Red Horse serve with the Iowa National Guard.
BAGHDAD - The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is privately telling U.S. officials that it wants their army to stay after this year.
The Americans are privately telling their Iraqi counterparts that they want to stay.
But under what conditions and at what price to the Americans who stay behind?
U.S. combat deaths are on the rise, an ominous sign of what lies ahead if an agreement is reached to keep troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline set for the end of the year.
Shiite militias get leeway
The same Iraqi government that wants the Americans to stay is also tacitly condoning attacks by Shiite militias on U.S. troops by failing to respond as aggressively to their attacks as it does to those of Sunni insurgent groups such as Al-Qaida in Iraq.
The Al-Maliki government's unwillingness or inability to rein in the militias adds a new element to a discussion that until now had been centered on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces and domestic political considerations in Washington and Baghdad, not the safety of U.S. soldiers.
Lately, U.S. officials have been vocal in levying accusations at Iran for arming the militias that are attacking U.S. forces, but less vocal in denouncing the Iraqi government's complicity.
"Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups which are killing our troops," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters recently in Washington.
He said any discussion with the Iraqi government to keep a force here next year "has to be done in conjunction with control of Iran in that regard."
On Monday, during his first visit to Iraq as secretary of defense, Leon Panetta also raised the alarm and suggested that the Iraqi government could do more.
The unequal response by the Iraqi security forces to the threats from Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups is a legacy of the sectarianism that was violently unleashed by the U.S. invasion eight years ago. That upended the Sunnis' long reign and installed a government dominated by Shiites nursing grudges against their former oppressors that persist to this day.
More like Korea than Somalia
Assuming that the two uneasy partners can find a way to reach their mutually agreed goal of keeping a U.S. military presence beyond the end of this year, the question is how to make it work more like South Korea and less like Somalia or some other failed state.
The Americans can keep pushing Iraq's leaders to clamp down more severely on the militias, but that may be too much to ask of a weak and divided government. What the soldiers would like is more latitude to conduct operations on their own.
Under the current security agreement, U.S. troops can act but only in self-defense -- usually, firing back when fired upon -- and are barred from operations against militant networks based on intelligence.