Iraq Protests Urge U.S. Out Sooner

The U.S. has contended that its troops likely will remain in Iraq beyond the December 2011 withdrawal deadline, but recent anti-American protests could change the game. It's no longer politically expedient for Iraq to ask the Americans to stay, and protests this weekend underscore that.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets this weekend to mark eight years since U.S. troops entered Baghdad. They weren't celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein. Rather, they were calling for the withdrawal of all American troops. That's supposed to happen on December 31st of this year.

But on a recent visit to Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said some U.S. troops should remain beyond the deadline. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on why that's looking less likely.

KELLY MCEVERS: Right now, there are about 47,000 American troops here in Iraq. That's down from close to 200,000 at the height of the war in 2007. If some of these troops were to remain beyond the deadline, the Iraqi government would have to formally request it. But a key component of that government is the party of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That's who led the protest yesterday.

Unidentified Man (Muqtada al-Sadr Spokesman): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd chanting in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Tens of thousands of demonstrators shouted the usual cries of "down with the invader, down with the occupier." Then, Sadr's spokesman read out a carefully worded statement.

Unidentified Man (Muqtada al-Sadr Spokesman): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: If U.S. troops do not get out of our country, he said, we will escalate our military resistance and unfreeze the Mahdi army.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MCEVERS: The Mahdi army is Sadr's militia. It fought fierce battles against the U.S. throughout the war, and ran death squads during the sectarian fighting. Sadr ordered the militia to stand down in 2008.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: After the demonstration, young men celebrated the prospect of fighting against Americans again. Others, like Dhaher Messim, seemed to understand that Sadr's militia, known in Arabic as the Jaish al Mahdi, will remain frozen - for now.

Mr. DHAHER MESSIM: (Through Translator) There's no clear order to unfreeze the Jaish al Mahdi. It's still possibilities. It's still up in the air. And probably, if the occupation is not over, then there may be this decision.

MCEVERS: Most analysts believe that Sadr's statement was just a threat; that it's mainly a warning to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki not to make a deal with the Americans to extend the deadline.

Joost Hiltermann is an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group. He says in private, many Iraqi officials say they want some U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, to act as a mediating force between Arabs and Kurds in the north and to help Iraq defend its borders.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (Deputy Program Director, International Crisis Group): There's lots of fear about what a post-U.S. landscape will look like. So a lot of the politicians who need the United States, you know, would like to say that. But they simply cannot do it.

MCEVERS: Because it would be political suicide, he says.

The scenarios are complicated but basically, if Muqtada al-Sadr's party quit the government over the issue, Maliki's position as prime minister could be in jeopardy. That, says Hiltermann, means a formal request for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq is very unlikely.

Mr. HILTERMANN: My presumption is, is that it is going to be almost impossible to accomplish an extension of the troop presence. I just don't see it happening.

MCEVERS: That's not to say the U.S. won't find ways to keep pockets of troops here and there. The embassy is allowed to oversee a few hundred military personnel. Newly purchased American tanks and fighter jets might come with their own special trainers. And the U.S. military also might find a way to conduct joint exercises with the Iraqis, as it does in other countries around the region, like Egypt. But those arrangements are likely to take shape quietly as the December deadline looms.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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