We keep seeing this spectacle of top US military officials going to Iraq for meetings with the political leadership, and saying loudly that if they want US troops to stay in the country beyond the December 2011 date, they’d better make up their minds soon. Mind you, no Iraqi official has said publicly – or, reading between the lines of all the statements, privately – that they want the US to stay. It seems like the US is attempting to master the art of the haggle:

US military: Do you want us to stay?
Iraq: No
US military: Now, you have to make up your minds. We must know immediately if you want us to stay.
Iraq: No
US military: Be serious about this. It takes a lot of time to get all these troops out, so we need to know now.
Iraq: No
US military: OK, we’ll give you one last chance….

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is the latest Pentagon leader to visit Iraq with this message. He stressed that no formal talks have been held on extending the US military deployment, but the leading statements are clear in their intent. “Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some US troops to stay, I am certain my government will welcome that dialogue,” Mullen said, without much nuance. However, Mullen and others before him keep insisting that the Iraqis must ask for the extension. And Iraqi politics being what they are, I don’t see how Nouri al-Maliki can possibly do that. Not if he wants to remain in power. Witness this nugget buried in an AP article:

Mullen sought to deflect any question that the U.S. is pushing for a troop extension, saying that there has been a lot of “interest and some confusion” on the issue.

“There are no plans — nor has there been any requests from the Iraqi government — for any residual U.S. force presence here after this December,” he said [...]

Mullen praised the Iraqi forces, saying they had made “incredible progress,” but said there were certain areas such as “air defense, intelligence” and logistics that are potential “vulnerabilities” for the Iraqi forces in the future.

During a meeting Thursday, al-Maliki told Mullen that Iraqi forces are able to maintain security in their own country.

I’ve talked a lot about protests in the Arab world, and you can add to that the protests against the US occupation in Iraq. Five thousand protesters demonstrated in Mosul Friday, demanding no extension of the US military presence. This has been going on for 16 days in Iraq, with a mass sit-in at al-Ahrar Square. Protests gathered at Tahrir Square in Baghdad (they have one) in support of total withdrawal by the end of the year. So in addition to the threat of the resumption of the Mahdi Army by Muqtada al-Sadr if the troops stay, you have mass popular opposition to the idea as well.

Any extension of the US military presence will lead to the downfall of the Iraqi regime, and the current political leadership knows it.

That doesn’t mean that an extension won’t happen. Behind the scenes, I’m sure US operatives are moving furiously to try and secure an extension, and they have a lot of influence at their disposal. But the interests of the Iraqi government all point to a total withdrawal, whether the US likes it or not. As I’ve said, the only time we leave war zones is by being chased. My money in Iraq is on being chased.