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Why is Obama leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq? Pt.2

Paul Jay speaks with Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist about the "pressure and persuasion" that the generals are putting on President Obama to retain military forces in Iraq beyond 2011.

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in our makeshift studio at Maryland. In our Washington, DC, studio is Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative historian and journalist. And we’re discussing Barack Obama’s plan to get out of Iraq. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE HISTORIAN AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: We left off in the first segment talking about the residual force be after [sic] August 2010 as many as 35,000 to 55,000 soldiers, to quote President Obama, which was, quote, "support our partners, and our enemy should know that we will continue to support our partners with these troops." But he seems to be pretty clear on the commitment about 2011. Here’s what he had to say.

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BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. So we will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned.

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JAY: His basic scenario seems to go like this. The US troops play a stabilizing role. If they leave too quickly, all hell will break loose or, quote-unquote, "our enemies will take advantage of our partners," which I assume means the Maliki government and some of the other allies, the Kurds in the north, I suppose. By 2011, things should be relatively stabilized, and we will get out as the agreement with the Iraqi government says. So what’s wrong with that?

PORTER: What’s wrong with that, Paul, is that the same argument that could be used to justify a de facto combat role by the United States from August 2010 to the end of 2011 would also apply after the end of 2011. I mean, what is the difference? If you’re saying that it’s a vital interest of the United States that we must continue to intervene with our combat forces in Iraq because all hell’s going to break loose otherwise, then the same thing’s going to be true at the end of 2011 and beyond.

JAY: He would counter-argue, I suppose, that a year is a big difference in terms of the strengthening of the Iraqi government, that the Iraqis themselves are saying 2011 is what they want, meaning the Iraqis, I suppose, that have an ability to say something about this. But, as we know, there’s going to be a referendum coming—or at least there’s supposed to be a referendum—on whether the Iraqi people agree with this withdrawal agreement. He’s still calling it a status of forces agreement, but I believe the Iraqis are calling it a withdrawal agreement. So a lot is still up in the air, depending on the outcome of that referendum. Tell us about the referendum.

PORTER: Well, the referendum has the potential for, of course, de-legitimizing the agreement under which US troops are allowed to stay until the end of 2011. It would raise the question, it would pose the question, for a vote, whether the people of Iraq want the United States to remain in Iraq with its troops for another roughly three years, three and a half years. So that question is supposed to be on the ballot. And the real question is whether there will be maneuvering in Iraq to prevent that from happening for the next three, three and a half years.

JAY: When is the referendum scheduled?

PORTER: Well, it’s supposed to be in July of this year.

JAY: Ayatollah Sistani, who has enormous influence, if I understand correctly, has said he’ll only support this agreement if in fact it does pass a referendum.

PORTER: I think that is probably the biggest deterrent to a maneuver by political figures in Iraq to derail in some fashion or to simply put off that referendum. Obviously, the powers that be in Iraq don’t want to take any chance that a popular referendum could potentially vote against the agreement, what as you point out the Iraqi government officially calls a withdrawal agreement. And so, therefore, it is a question mark whether something will happen between now and July to prevent that. But I do think that the Shiite clergy led by Ali al-Sistani himself had a very strong position on it, and that is the one thing that would stay the hand of al-Maliki and others in the government with regard to that referendum.

JAY: Now, you’ve talked in some of your articles earlier that while Obama has more or less been definitive on this 2011 date, there’s been a lot of wriggle room from some of the generals and in the Pentagon. Can you speak about that?

PORTER: It’s really quite worrisome that the field commanders, particularly Ray Odierno, the general who’s in charge of US troops in Iraq, has more than once made it clear that he believes the United States should retain military forces in Iraq beyond 2011. And in an interview that he gave to the Washington Post correspondent Thomas E. Ricks last November, he was very explicit; he said he wanted to have as many as 30,000 or 35,000 troops in Iraq by 2014 or 2015, that is to say, as long as four years after the expiration of the withdrawal agreement. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself has also supported that idea in an interview on the record. So we have to be concerned that Obama is going to be subject to pressures and persuasion and maneuvers by those people in the Pentagon and in the field who definitely want to keep troops beyond 2011. And it is also worrisome that President Obama has said that he’s going to be listening to those field commanders and that he’s going to be making adjustments.

JAY: So, Gareth, these 35,000 to 50,000 troops, you know, they’re supposedly not combat troops. So if they’re not combat troops, what are they? And what are they going to do?

PORTER: Well, of course, they are combat troops to a great extent. The fact is that the number of logistics personnel that would be needed simply to support the Iraqi troops is quite small compared with the present logistical tail that the US military has there, so that can’t make up very many of them. There are going to be, obviously, special operations forces or special forces troops. About 6,000 of them now are deployed in Iraq. They probably will all stay. Then you have the advisors, the people who are actually in the field with the Iraqi troops. And the problem is that there’s no way that you’re going to come up with 20-, 25-, 30,000 of those. So what we’re really talking about is what has been referred to as a rapid reaction force, and that is going to consist of at least one, probably two, possibly more than that, of what are called combat brigade teams. They are approximately 6,500 each, and it’s very likely that you’re going to have at least two of those. And I think that’s why the congressional Democrats who were quoted as expressing surprise about 35,000 to 50,000 troops were so surprised, because they believed it was going to be more like 15,000 or 20,000. And they, I think, realized that that means that you’re talking about the actual deployment of combat brigades—precisely the combat formations which the Obama speech was supposed to be saying that we’re withdrawing completely from Iraq.

JAY: Let me make the basic argument, though, that there’s various elites amongst the Shia, there’s contending sections of the elite amongst the Shia, amongst the Sunni, amongst the Kurds, and that in fact the US’s presence is somewhat of a stabilizing force, and that these elites may go at it if these troops leave.

PORTER: There will be fighting in Iraq in the future. There will be fighting between Sunnis and Shiites. There will be fighting between Kurds and Arabs over oil fields south of Kurdistan, over control of Kirkuk, and so forth. That, I think, is close to an inevitability. That raises the question: do we want the United States to have a colonial power in Iraq for the foreseeable future? I think the answer, from my point of view, is no, and therefore the argument that all hell’s going to break loose if the United States doesn’t stay in Iraq, cannot be taken as a rationale for continuing to maintain troops there for X number of years. It just doesn’t hold up.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the rest of President Obama’s plan, what he calls the third part of his strategy, diplomacy, and a regional strategy to involve other countries in the region, including Syria and Iran. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gareth Porter.

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