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Iraq: When Will the Americans Leave? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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With Congressional maneuverings over the funding of US troops in Iraq now over, at least temporarily, it is, perhaps, time to discuss ways in which the American military presence might end.

If one listens to anti-American circles, the US does not intend to ever leave Iraq. The truth, however, is that the US has never tried to stay in any country against its wishes.

In 1966, French President Charles De Gaulle decided to take his country out of the military part of NATO and asked the Americans to close their bases in France. President Lyndon Johnson immediately complied, ending more than two decades of US military presence on French soil.

In 1969, it was the turn of Colonel Muammar Kaddafi, who had just seized power in Tripoli, to ask the US to close its vast Wheels base, a key part of NATO’s strategy in the Mediterranean. This time it was President Richard Nixon’s turn to immediately comply by closing down the base.

In 1979, the new Khomeinist regime in Iran demanded the closure of 27 US-operated listening posts set up under the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) along the Irano-Soviet borders to monitor Soviet missile tests. President Jimmy Carter, acting in accordance with principles fixed by his predecessors complied with the Iranian demand , although both the Soviet Union and the United Nations had sanctioned the listening posts.

In the 1980s, the US gave up several bases in a number of countries, including Subic Bay in the Philippines. It also withdrew its military personnel from Pakistan after the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) lapsed into oblivion.

In 2002, the US withdrew its troops and materiel from Saudi Arabia after the government in Riyadh demanded it.

Most US military bases are located in democratic countries whose governments support the American presence on their soil.

As far as Iraq is concerned, the US-led military presence there is sanctioned by the United Nations, and has been twice endorsed by the Iraqi people in free elections with massive voter turnouts. Both the UN and the elected Iraqi government have the right to demand an end to the US-led coalition’s military presence at any time.

That the US has never wanted to remain militarily present in any country against the wishes of its government and people makes good sense. There is no point in maintaining bases in a hostile territory in which a good part of resources would have to be devoted to self-defense.

The US-led coalition in Iraq has three key functions.

The first is to train, equip and combat test, the new Iraqi army and security forces. This task is expected to be largely complete by 2009. The new Iraqi army now has 129 brigades of which almost half have already been tested in actual combat. Despite the fact that most NATO allies have failed to meet their quotas for training a new Iraqi officers’ corps, the resurgent Iraqi army is beginning to have the minimum of cadres and commanders it needs to function on its own.

The US-led coalition’s second task is to fight the various terrorist groups still operating in two or three provinces plus some neighborhoods in Baghdad. Fighting terrorism is a long-term business, however. Egypt needed 22 years to crush its terrorists, and Algeria has not yet won complete victory against its enemies after 12 years. Turkey crushed terrorism after nearly two decades, although remnants of the monster are still able to strike occasionally.

Thus, the US-led coalition’s withdrawal from Iraq cannot be made conditional to a complete and final defeat of the various terrorist forces now operating there. What is important is to have an Iraqi army capable of doing what its Egyptian, Algerian and Turkish counterparts did over many years.

The third task of the US-led coalition, and one that seldom receives the attention it merits, is to deter Iraq’s predatory neighbors from intervening in its affairs.

The Islamic Republic’s ambitions in Iraq are too well known to be detailed here. And it was no accident that Tehran produced Muqtada al-Sadr like a magician’ rabbit out of a hat on the eve of talks with the US in Baghdad last week. Tehran thins the US will leave Iraq once President George W Bush is out of the White House, and is determined to take the credit for having “driven the Great Satan” out of the region. It is obvious that Iraq, even if its new army is fully functional, will not be in a position to defend itself against Iranian military pressure combined with terrorism by Tehran-backed armed groups across the board.

But the Islamic Republic is not alone in nurturing dangerous ambitions in Iraq. Turkey, too, is looking for the first opportunity to advance its own agenda both directly, through military pressure, and indirectly through the Turcoman ethnic minority. Ankara invokes the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) under which Turkey was granted “rights of observation” as far as Mosul and Kirkuk are concerned. In the last decade of Saddam Hussein’s rule, Turkey had also obtained the right to send troops into northern Iraq, ostensibly in hot pursuit of Kurdish armed rebels. It is obvious that the new Iraqi democracy cannot allow Turkey, or any other neighbor, such privileges.

Although less dangerous, if only because they lack the clout, Syria and Jordan also harbor ambitions of their own in Iraq.

Thus, new Iraq would need an allied military presence to deter threats from its neighbors and provide its fragile democracy from striking roots. A similar situated existed in West Germany where NATO presence protected the new democracy and deterred the Soviet threat, most potently posed through East Germany. The symbolic US military presence in South Korea continues to pay a similar function in support of the democratic government in Seoul and as a deterrent to Pyongyang’s ambitions.

It is not unreasonable to think that the bulk of the US-led coalition forces could be out of Iraq by the spring of 2009, leaving behind a token military presence designed to deter the schemes of Iraq’s dangerous neighbors.

The US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has created a new status quo that needs to be defended just as was the case in post-war Europe and the Koran Peninsula.