The Cable

Iraqi Ambassador: We will request U.S. troop extension “in our own sweet time”

The Iraqi government will request to extend the presence of U.S. troops past the end of this year, but not until it is good and ready, said Iraq's ambassador to Washington.

"The principle that there will be some military presence to help train Iraqi military and police has been largely agreed upon," Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie said in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "You'll see it when you see it. Americans want everything now or yesterday. We don't do it like this. We do it in our own sweet time."

We also asked Sumaida'ie for his take on the Arab Spring, especially the protests raging in Syria, Iraq's neighbor. He said the downfall of the Assad regime is both inevitable and a good thing for the region.

"The Assad regime is steadily losing its friends, its credibility and its grip. It only has Iran behind it, along with a shy neutrality from Russian and China. Other than that, it has lost," he said. "The coming change in Syria will alter the balance of power in the region and will eventually weaken Iran and reduce its capacity to project its power through Hezbollah, Hamas, and other instruments. And it will release Lebanon from the overbearing dominance of Syria."

His comments diverged from the pro-Assad comments made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said on Aug. 12, ""We call for guarantees for citizens to demand their rights, and it is the duty of governments to respond with needed reforms. But we don't support the idea of armed action or sabotage and bringing down regimes in this way."

Is Iraq worried about the instability that could come following the collapse of the Syrian regime?  Sumaida'ie said no, and explained his position by telling a story of having lunch Tuesday afternoon in a downtown restaurant with a group of Iraqi diplomats when the East Coast earthquake hit and rattled the building.

"The restaurant emptied, including the waiters, except for our table. We didn't budge. We just shrugged it off," he said. "That's an illustration of the Iraqi psyche. We've been through hell and there's not much that can really scare us anymore."

Top Obama administration officials have been publicly venting their frustration with the lack of a formal request from the Iraqi government to alter the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement, negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, which mandates that all U.S. troops leave Iraq by Dec. 31.

In July, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. And last week, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" The Iraqi government quickly denied that they agreed to anything, and publicly refuted Panetta's remark.

Sumaida'ie tried to explain what's really going on here. He said that there is a consensus among all political players, with the exceptions of the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that Iraq needs some American military support, particularly when it comes to training, past the end of this year. "However, the form that this will take and the legal details are still being debated," he said.

He said the debate over the number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq has ranged between 8,000 and 20,000, and that they would be non-combat forces limited to the training of Iraqi military and police forces. The Iraqis are deeply concerned about clearly defining the role of the U.S. troops, in order to dispel any notion that the remaining forces are an occupation force or would be engaged in combat operations.

The key remaining sticking point is how to satisfy the U.S. demand that American soldiers remaining in Iraq would not be subject to the Iraqi justice system. The Obama administration wants the troop extension with the legal immunity provision to be approved by Iraq's Council of Representatives (COR), which the United States believes is necessary for it to have the force of law.

That's a hugely complicated and excruciating political task for Maliki's government, which is still trying to put together a national unity government that will satisfy all of the country's primary political actors, including Sadr and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Allawi's bloc got the most votes in a very close parliamentary election in March 2010, but was unable to form a government. Maliki struck a deal with Allawi and formed a government, but that deal hasn't been fully implemented and Maliki still has yet to appoint a defense or interior minister, the Allawi bloc claims it is entitled to the defense minister slot.

If the troop deal with the United States is put before parliament, that would give Maliki's opponents an opportunity to open up a Pandora's Box of unrelated issues, said Sumaida'ie.

"Even if they need to go through the COR, the numbers are there to support it, but unfortunately this issue is used as a political football to achieve other aims and this might be held hostage to other political issues and considerations," he said.

Another option is just to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, but the U.S. government has said that wouldn't assure them any agreement on immunity for U.S. troops would be legally valid. Sumaida'ie said some are even tossing around the idea of granting every remaining U.S. solder diplomatic status through the U.S. embassy, which would grant them diplomatic immunity.

Another reason most Iraqi politicians don't want to vote on a troop extension in the COR is because they don't want to be publically and politically linked to the decision to keep American troops there, according to Marisa Cochrane Sullivan and Ramzy Mardini, two scholars at the Institute for the Study of War who traveled to Iraq in July.

"While most Iraqi politicians favor a new security agreement privately, they are hesitant to support the measure publicly or in parliament," they wrote in their trip report. "The individual Iraqi politician does not want to own the responsibility nor the consequences for ‘extending the foreign occupation,' whether it is in the eyes of insurgent groups or some of their constituents."

They also wrote that the idea of using the embassy's diplomatic immunity to protect troops is not viable because it would overwhelm the embassy, and that the debate over whether to go through the COR has no clear solution.

"The U.S. and Iraqis are holding two conflicting red-lines on the prospect for an ongoing U.S. military presence that may prove to be ultimately irreconcilable," they said.

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The Cable

Pentagon: Huge Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan continues

Even though China and Taiwan have been getting along better recently, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) planning remains dominated by preparations for taking back the island, and it continues to amass troops, ships, and missiles on its side of the Taiwan Strait, according to a new Pentagon report released today.

"Although the PLA is contending with a growing array of missions, Taiwan remains its main strategic direction," stated the 2011 version of the Pentagon's annual report on the PLA. "The PLA seeks the capability to deter Taiwan independence and influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing's terms. In pursuit of this objective, Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. support for the island in the event of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland's favor."

The annual congressionally mandated report was due in March but was late, as usual. It is prepared primarily by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy's Asia and Pacific affairs team and this year was led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer.

"Relations with Taiwan have continued to improve, but the PLA shows no sign of slowing its efforts to develop plans and capabilities for a cross-Strait contingency," the report stated. "In the current decade to 2020, the PLA is likely to steadily expand its military options for Taiwan, including those to deter, delay, or deny third party intervention."

The Chinese military is also increasing the firepower on its shores opposite Taiwan and now has between 1,000 and 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) within range of the island. "To improve the lethality of this force, the PLA is introducing variants of missiles with improved ranges, accuracies, and payloads," the report said.

The PLA is also buying highly accurate cruise missiles and developing anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), which the report said were meant to attack large ships, such as aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific. Meanwhile, China is set to start testing its first aircraft carrier this year and could have a second one built by 2015. "China likely will build multiple aircraft carriers with support ships over the next decade," the report noted.

Meanwhile, China is improving its over-the-horizon radar capabilities and its use of unmanned aerial vehicles, and it continues to develop several types of airborne early warning and control planes, all of which could be used to monitor U.S. ships in the Western Pacific. It is also expanding its nuclear submarine fleet, finishing development of a fifth-generation stealth fighter, and upgrading its B-6 bomber fleet.

400,000 of China's total of 1.2 million ground troops are also based in the three military regions in China closest to Taiwan. Meanwhile, Taiwan plans to cut its military force to 215,000 troops and transition to an all-volunteer military by 2015, the report stated.

"Throughout the PLA's modernization drive, Taiwan contingency planning has largely dominated the agenda," the report said.

In a press briefing on Wednesday with reporters, Schiffer said, "There are trends, as the report points to, that continue to point to a very challenging military and security environment across the [Taiwan] Strait."

Schiffer wouldn't confirm reports that the Pentagon has notified Taiwanese officials that the administration intends to deny Taiwan's request to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets.

"I will simply offer that there have been no decisions that have been made on arms sales to Taiwan," he said. "And consistent with our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States will provide to Taiwan the self-defense capabilities that it requires."

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