U.S. Troops To Leave Iraq, But Questions Remain
SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The United States will pull all of its troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. President Obama spoke yesterday at the White House.
President BARACK OBAMA: So today, I can report that as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over.
SIMON: The United States had already been planning to withdraw U.S. troops by the end of the year, the only question was whether to keep a few thousand troops behind to serve as trainers. Now that won't happen. Still, there are many unanswered questions about what the relationship between the United States and Iraq will look like after U.S. troops leave. To try to sort through those questions we're joined this morning by NPR's Kelly McEvers in Baghdad. Thanks for being with us Kelly.
KELLY MCEVERS: Hi.
SIMON: And also NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, in our studios. Tom, thank you for being with us.
TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And let's start with you because Americans and Iraqis were in negotiations to keep some U.S. troops there. Was this announcement was a surprise?
BOWMAN: You know, it was a bit of a surprise because earlier this year, people I talked with at the Pentagon expected as many as two brigades to stay in Iraq to help with training. That's around 10,000 troops or so.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Mm-hmm.
BOWMAN: And these troops would rotate in and out. They would help Iraqis with logistics, meaning how the Iraqis supply their troops, and also with things like Medivacs. But in recent months, the numbers have been scaled back to as low as 2,000, 3,000. So even if the U.S. kept troops in Iraq, it wasn't going to be a very large number.
And Scott, it's also worth noting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials publically said they wanted American forces to stay there to help with training.
SIMON: Kelly McEvers, you're in Baghdad. Why did a deal to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq fall apart?
MCEVERS: It seems to have turned on this question of immunity. The Americans who were negotiating whether or not to keep some troops in Iraq into next year were very adamant that the Iraqis had to grant immunity to these soldiers - and this is a pretty common thing. But they wanted the Iraqis to do it very publically, they wanted them to vote on it in Parliament, and this, given the, you know, the sentiment of the Iraqi people, the wariness on the part of the Iraq people have seen so many people die over the last nine years, that just wasn't something they could sell.
SIMON: Tom, President Obama, of course, presented this as a milestone and a major achievement, but the U.S. really wanted to keep some troops there. Why?
BOWMAN: Well, two reasons, really. First of all, the country's still volatile, particularly in the north with the Kurds and Arabs around the city of Kirkuk and some of those areas. So they wanted to make sure it was stable. The United States has invested a lot of blood and treasure in Iraq. The other reason is Iran. They want to make sure Iran's influence doesn't increase in the country.
SIMON: Kelly McEvers in Baghdad, what does this mean for Iranian influence in Iraq?
MCEVERS: Right now it looks like Iran has won. This was a redline for Iran, for its surrogates here in Iraq, namely the part of Muqtada al-Sadar who now, you know, once was battling American forces with the militia Mahdi Army, but now holds 40 seats in Parliament, and he was key for, you know, to helping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki come to power.
So this has always been a redline for them, that American troops have to withdraw by the deadline, and they knew that they could whip up public support to get it.
SIMON: Tom, practical question: does this mean the U.S. is quitting on the idea of training Iraqi forces?
BOWMAN: No, it doesn't. First of all, a White House official said yesterday the embassy will have an office that will have some trainers in it - like all embassies around the world - and we're talking about training Iraqis on things like F16s, which the Iraqis just bought. So the issue is will there be a larger U.S. training role in Iraq even without troops based there permanently. And the president hinted that issue is still being considered, a larger number of trainers. Let's listen to what he said:
OBAMA: We will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces, again, just as we offer training and assistance to countries around the world. After all, there will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq, and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure, and self-reliant.
BOWMAN: So the president himself is saying that this issue of trainers is still on the table, and they could find some workaround, Scott. They could add more trainers to the embassy, but that's still being worked out.
SIMON: Kelly McEvers in Baghdad, do you think the Iraqis are going to go for that?
MCEVERS: I do. I mean, all along, like Tom said, Iraqi officials have said that they want some American troops here. It's just how they were going to sell it to the people. And it became increasingly clear that it was important for them to say the occupation is over, the war is over, this is ending, we're pulling these troops out, and that that sort of chapter is closed.
Then to open a new chapter and talk about, how can we bring some trainers back, maybe it's under the auspices of NATO, maybe under the U.S. Embassy, under a sort of different set of rules than what most Iraqis view as the occupation, that that might make sense going forward.
SIMON: So Tom Bowman, U.S. troops are departing, but there's always the prospect in the future of some kind of working relationship.
BOWMAN: Exactly. Let's face it, they need help rebuilding their armed forces and the security forces. They need help in logistics, they need help in these Medivacs, they need help in F16s, and also building their navy too. They need a lot of training help. The question is how you make this politically palatable to the Iraqi people and other Iraqi lawmakers.
SIMON: And Kelly McEvers, the United States would prefer to provide that help rather than have Iraq turn to Iran?
MCEVERS: Absolutely. You know, and this is what they were trying to negotiate all year. I mean, I think you could kind of look at this as a failure on the part of the Americans to figure out a way. I mean, they've been doing this now for almost a year, to figure out a way to make this palatable to the Iraqi people.
SIMON: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Baghdad. Thanks for being with us.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
SIMON: And NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks very much both of you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.