Many questions linger about US forces’ future in Iraq 

Iraq was to have been so simple. A quick, three-month conquest of the country with a relatively light force. Be welcomed by the Iraqis as liberators. Oust Saddam Hussein. Destroy his weapons of mass destruction. And then depart, leaving behind a grateful democracy.

As it turned out, nothing about Iraq has been simple or easy, including trying to leave it, which we propose to do by Dec. 31. Indeed, this week the U.S. officially notified Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the withdrawal has begun and preparations for still further withdrawals of the 45,000 troops there now are going on as planned.

The problem is that neither the United States nor most of the Iraqi government believes a complete pullout is a good idea. But there are obstacles.

Washington is insisting that the Iraqis formally request a continuing U.S. presence, with the troops being accorded the same immunity from Iraqi law they have now. Further, the Pentagon wants the Iraqis to spell out exactly what role the U.S. troops will play.

A formal request has yet to come, but this week, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani became the first senior Iraqi official to formally and publicly ask the U.S. to stay on. He fears the possibility of sectarian civil war if the Americans leave.

One glaring need is for U.S. military trainers. The Iraqi military and police are still not in a position to secure the country — part of the price we’re still paying for the George W. Bush administration’s terribly ill-advised decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003.

If the U.S. stays on, there is an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about how many troops will remain. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is said to favor 3,000 to 4,000, a force large enough to defend itself and train the Iraqis, but not do much operationally.

The senior U.S. commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, proposes 14,000 to 18,000, which, without knowing the exact tactical objectives in mind, seems the more reasonable number, particularly since firebrand and Iranian-allied cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has vowed that his militia will attack any U.S. military remaining beyond the deadline.

The Obama administration says the U.S. Embassy will have a large contingent of CIA personnel and private contractors, but that doesn’t make up for the presence of regular troops and, besides, the contractors are truly unpopular with the Iraqis.

Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama pledged to have all American troops out this year, and considering there were 140,000 in Iraq when he took office, the president has worked steadily to keep that promise.

But if he doesn’t actually break the promise, Obama may be called upon to bend it considerably. Given our history with Iraq, striking a compromise that will satisfy the Iraqis, the Kurds, the Pentagon and Obama’s political opponents will be neither simple nor easy.

Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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