US Secretary of State Robert Gates Image Credit: AP

Reports that the US is planning to negotiate extending the term of its forces in Iraq, if requested by the government in Baghdad, coincided with the visit of US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates to the country.

The Iraqi government's spokesman on his part said that "Nouri Al Maliki, Iraqi Prime Minster, informed Secretary Gates that the government of Iraq does not wish to see US or any other foreign troops' presence on its soil".

Gates's visit came following the pressure exerted by senior US officials on their Iraqi counterparts to accept the idea of an extended American troop presence in Iraq, beyond the time-limit outlined in the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) which was signed between the two countries in 2008.

The US troops' withdrawal, according to the agreement, is supposed to be completed by December 31, 2011. However, reports point to Washington wanting 47,000 troops to remain in 10 major military camps spread around Iraq.

The US is not expected to face any difficulties in achieving its wish, as the final date of troop withdrawal according to the Sofa agreement was and still is a topic of disagreement, given the chaotic nature of Iraqi politics.

Away from ostentatious statements intended for public consumption, there are still those in the US and Iraq who see that extending troop presence is now inevitable, and may be in the interest of both parties.

The US has its own considerations. It did not come to the region to leave after a while, especially under the current circumstances of the Middle East. Furthermore, the dramatic recent events may just be a precursor to other occurrences, which the US does not want to be watching from afar.

Al Maliki, on the other hand, has his own local and regional considerations. Internally there are fears of the fragile coalition, which brought him to power, collapsing. The conditions set by the Sadrist movement to back him are linked to his pledge not to extend US forces' presence in Iraq.

No authority

On the regional front, he is also being pressurised by neighbouring governments that do not feel secure given the presence of US troops at their borders.

In reality, Al Maliki does not have the authority to decide about US forces in Iraq. All he can do is push this crisis away from him by referring the issue to the Iraqi Parliament for a vote.

The chances that the parliament will vote in the affirmative are high, despite the noise that will be made by the Sadrists, as they did back in 2008 when there was a vote on the Sofa.

There are questions about the readiness of Iraq's armed forces to fill the void that will be left if US troops depart.

Internally, US forces in Iraq have not conducted operations on their own since 2009, working instead in tandem with Iraqi forces. However, that may not be taken as a positive indicator regarding the capabilities of Iraqi forces to stand alone.

Army not ready

Several major events which took place in Iraq seriously question the capabilities of these forces.

On the national security level, everyone remembers the statement made by Babekir Zibari, Iraqi army's Chief of Staff, when he pointed out quite frankly that the Iraqi army will not be ready before 2020. Moreover, Iraq does not have an air force except for a few reconnaissance aircraft.

The issue of extending the stay of US forces in Iraq must be viewed from several angles.

One vital aspect is the effect of US withdrawal on Iraq's stability, especially as there are grave unresolved issues between different political parties.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect in Iraq is the non-existence of a clear constitutional and political framework that is acceptable to all. There are calls to amend some stipulations of the Constitution, and there are those who are against the amendments. There are also different interpretations of constitutional provisions, which threaten to snowball into a struggle over disputed land. On the other hand there are mutual suspicions about the real intentions and goals of different forces in the political process.

The current political balance in Iraq is fragile, as it came into being to address temporary interests and was not the result of convergence in visions and strategies

Lately, the US has adopted a non-combat role in Iraq; the US forces are in fact working as peacekeepers in Kirkuk, and may be obliged to play a similar role in other locations around Iraq.

They are in reality working as a force which stands against any altercation that may take place between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army, especially after the Kurds deployed their forces in southern and western Kirkuk which they insist upon integrating into the Kurdish region in the face of strong resistance from the city's Arabs and Turkmen.

The Sadrists regard the renewal of the Sofa as a red line, while members of the movement have been voicing their threats to rebuild the Mahdi army, which the government subdued with great difficulty in the past.

Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.