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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.