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US expects March deal to keep troops in Iraq

WASHINGTON -- US officials expect to sign an agreement with the Iraqi Governing Council by the end of March for a continued military presence in the country after the establishment of an interim government next year, in an accord similar to treaties with other countries hosting large numbers of American troops, like Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The Bush administration said last week that it has agreed to hand over control of Iraq to a provisional government by the end of June, but defense and other officials have said they do not expect the transfer of political power to lead to a short-term reduction in US military might there. However, US leaders hope to have a less visible military presence in the country as they hand over more duties to Iraqi forces.

Some uncertainty has emerged over the future role of the US troops in Iraq, specialists said. The United States currently plans to rotate troops in and out in the first months of 2004 in a move that would leave around 100,000 US troops there, from the current 130,000.

A temporary Iraqi constitution is expected to be drafted in February, and the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council are both scheduled to dissolve by July 1 when the new Iraq government is officially recognized.

US officials, however, have rejected the notion that handing over political power is the first step toward an immediate withdrawal of forces, citing ongoing security needs.

"The CPA goes away, does that change your military mission on the ground to provide security? Not really," said a Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "How much effect does [civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III] have on military operations on the ground? I believe that he works very closely with General [Ricardo] Sanchez, but General Sanchez is in charge of security and troops on the ground."

Sanchez is the head of allied forces in Iraq.

The defense official described the military arrangement, scheduled to be completed by the end of March, as similar to agreements the United States has with Afghanistan and the Balkans, where the US military presence is intended to provide stability during a transition to a new government.

There would be notable differences: There are about 8,500 US troops in Afghanistan, roughly 2,900 in Bosnia, and around 2,100 in Kosovo. But in each country, significant numbers of foreign troops are also stationed to assist in peacekeeping operations.

Although the Bush administration has pushed for greater numbers of foreign troops in Iraq -- which currently total 20,000 -- most of the remaining forces will be American.

US and Iraqi officials have expressed confidence that an agreement will be reached with Iraqi leaders.

"We have agreed with the Governing Council yesterday that there will be a side agreement dealing with our mutual security interests, which we will also negotiate between now and the end of June," Bremer, the top US civilian official in Iraq, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "As one of the Governing Council members puts it, they want the American occupation to end, but the American presence to continue."

Military specialists and US officials have expressed hope that the establishment of an Iraqi government with real power will undercut the anticoalition insurgents by reassuring Iraqis that the United States does not intend to remain an occupying power.

"The reality on the ground says you want to reduce your exposure as fast as you can, but you can't pull out your residual deterrent force or your raiding forces too soon," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense specialist with the Brookings Institution. "We sometimes delude ourselves in Washington into thinking we have more options here than we really do."

General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, which includes Iraq, said last week that the US forces plan to reduce the day-to-day US presence by handing over more security duties.

"Over time, we'll turn over more and more responsibility to Iraqi security institutions, and over time we will move our forces to the outskirts of the urban areas. We'll do that when it's prudent," Abizaid said. "We've done it in some areas already very successfully. You can see in Karbala and Najaf, for example, that Iraqis pretty much run the security situation there."

Yet handing power over to a new Iraqi government includes a number of risks. For example, some specialists warned that the prospect of real power -- after decades of authoritarian rule under Saddam Hussein -- could exacerbate divisions among the various factions in Iraq.

"This could even slow down our ability to withdraw forces because it could lead to some more tussling among Iraqi forces for power," O'Hanlon said.

And while Americans and Iraqis have both expressed confidence that an agreement will keep coalition troops there beyond June, the situation in Iraq has shifted rapidly several times already.

"They're taking a big gamble here of undermining the whole purpose of the invasion," said Lawrence Korb, a defense official during the Reagan administration who is now with the liberal Center for American Progress. "If this provisional government that you set up . . . says we want to set up an Iranian-style religious republic and we want you out of here, what are you going to do then?"

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com

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