WASHINGTON - United States military leaders and Pentagon officials have made it
clear through public statements and deliberately leaked stories in recent weeks
that they plan to violate a central provision of the US-Iraq withdrawal
agreement requiring the complete pullout of all US combat troops from Iraqi
cities by mid-2009 by reclassifying combat troops as support troops.
The scheme to engage in chicanery in labeling US troops represents both open
defiance of an agreement which the US military has never accepted and a way of
blocking president-elect Barack Obama's proposed plan for withdrawal of all US
troops from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office.
By redesignating tens of thousands of combat troops as support troops, those
officials apparently hope to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to
insist on getting all combat troops of the country by mid-2010.
General David Petraeus, now commander of CENTCOM, and General Ray Odierno, the
top US commander in Iraq, who opposed Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan during
the election campaign, have drawn up their own alternative plan rejecting that
timeline, as the New York Times reported on Thursday. That plan was
communicated to Obama in general terms by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen when he met with his
national security team in Chicago on December 15, according to the Times.
The determination of the military leadership to ignore the US-Iraq Status of
Forces Agreement (SOFA) and to pressure Obama on his withdrawal policy was
clear from remarks made by Mullen in a news conference on November 17 - after
US ambassador Ryan Crocker had signed the agreement in Baghdad.
Mullen declared he considered it "important" that withdrawal of US forces from
Iraq "be conditions-based". That position directly contradicted the terms of
the agreement, and Mullen was asked whether the agreement required all US
troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, regardless of the security conditions.
He answered "Yes," but then added, "Three years is a long time. Conditions
could change in that period of time ... "
Mullen said US officials would "continue to have discussions with them over
time, as conditions continue to evolve", and said that reversing the outcome of
the negotiations was "theoretically possible".
Obama's decision to keep Gates, who was known to be opposed to Obama's
withdrawal timetable, as defense secretary confirmed the belief of the Pentagon
leadership that Obama would not resist the military effort to push back against
his Iraq withdrawal plan.
A source close to the Obama transition team has told Inter Press Service that
Obama had made the decision for a frankly political reason. Obama and his
advisers believed the administration would be politically vulnerable on
national security and viewed the Gates nomination as a way of blunting
political criticism of its policies.
The Gates decision was followed immediately by the leak of a major element in
the military plan to push back against a 16-month withdrawal plan - a scheme to
keep US combat troops in Iraqi cities after mid-2009, in defiance of the terms
of the withdrawal agreement.
The New York Times first revealed that "Pentagon planners" were proposing the
"relabeling" of US combat units as "training and support" units in a December 4
story. The Times story also revealed that Pentagon planners were projecting
that as many as 70,000 US troops would be maintained in Iraq "for a substantial
time even beyond 2011", despite the agreement's explicit requirement that all
US troops would have to be withdrawn by then.
Odierno provided a further hint on December 13 that the US military intended to
ignore the provision of the agreement requiring withdrawal of all US combat
troops from cities and towns by the end of May 2009. Odierno told reporters
flatly that US troops would not move from numerous security posts in cities
beyond next summer's deadline for their removal, saying, "We believe that's
part of our transition teams."
His spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton, explained that these
"transition teams" would consist of "enablers" rather than "combat forces", and
that this would be consistent with the withdrawal agreement.
But both Odierno's and Hutton's remarks were clearly based on the Pentagon plan
for the "relabeling" of US combat forces as support forces in order to evade a
key constraint in the pact that the Times had reported earlier.
In an article in The New Republic dated December 24, Eli Lake writes that three
military sources told him that the US "military transition teams", which have
been fighting alongside Iraqi units, as well as force-protection units and
"quick-reaction forces", are all being redesignated as "support units", despite
their obvious combat functions, "in order to skirt the language of the SOFA".
US commanders have not bothered to claim that this is anything but a semantic
trick, since the redesignated units would continue to participate in combat
patrols, as confirmed by New York Times reporters Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom
Shanker on Thursday.
The question of whether Iraqis would permit such "relabeled" of combat forces
to remain after next June was discussed with Obama on Monday, according to the
Times report. One participant reportedly said Gates and Mullen "did not rule
out the idea that Iraqis might permit such troops".
Despite Odierno's assertion of the US military's prerogative to unilaterally
determine what US troops may remain in Iraqi cities, the Iraqi government has
already made it clear that the US military has no such right. Defense Ministry
spokesman Major General Mohammed al Askari responded to Odierno's and Hutton's
statements by saying that US commanders would have to get permission from the
Iraqi government to station any non-combat troops in cities beyond the
The signals from Odierno of US military defiance of the withdrawal agreement
suggest that the Pentagon and military leadership still do not take seriously
the views of the Iraqi public as having any role in determining the matter of
foreign troops in their country. Nevertheless, the withdrawal agreement is
still subject to a popular referendum next July, and Iraqi politicians have
already warned that evidence of a US refusal to abide by its terms would affect
the outcome of that vote.
Washington Post reporters quoted Sunni legislator Shata al-Obusi as saying,
"Iraqis will see this procrastination and they will vote 'no' against the
agreement, and after that the government should cancel it according to its
Beyond the aim of getting Obama to abandon his 16-month plan, the military and
Pentagon group still hopes to pressure Obama to agree to a long-term US
military presence in Iraq.
Further evidence emerged last week that Gates is a central figure in that
effort. In a Washington Post column on December 11, George Will quoted Gates as
saying there was bipartisan congressional support for "a long-term residual
presence" of as many as 40,000 US troops in Iraq, and such a presence for
"decades" had been the standard practice following "major US military
operations" since the beginning of the Cold War.
Those statements evidently represent part of the case Gates, Mullen and the
military commanders are already making behind the scenes to get Obama to
acquiesce in the subversion of the intent of the US-Iraq agreement.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.