WASHINGTON — The U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially comes to an end Tuesday, 2,722 days after American-led troops stormed across the border from Kuwait. The remaining 49,000 U.S. troops are supposed to depart by the end of next year.
The American mission is far from over, however, and it may have to be extended, according to former senior U.S. officials, foreign diplomats and private analysts.
Iraq's leaders, worried about the country's stability and the designs of powerful neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, may ask for at least some American troops to remain as an insurance policy, Iraqi and U.S. observers said.
"There is a reasonable probability the Iraqis, once they've got a new government in place, will reassess" and request a change to the 2008 status of forces agreement, said Ryan Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009.
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"I hope we'll be responsive," Crocker said in an interview, arguing that there's much left to do in Iraq.
President Obama, who'll mark the end of the combat mission with an Oval Office speech Tuesday, hasn't said how he'll treat such an Iraqi request.
"We've made a commitment... to have our troops out by the end of 2011, and that's a commitment we intend to keep," deputy press secretary Bill Burton said this week.
If the Iraqis ask, however, "it would be... hard to say no," said Daniel Serwer, a vice president of the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace.
The uncertainty over next year's deadline underscores Iraq's precarious position as America's attention shifts to this fall's elections, domestic economic issues and the growing war in Afghanistan.
Iraq is better off in many ways since 2007, when a surge of U.S. combat brigades, a change in military strategy and payments to Sunni Muslim tribal leaders to fight al-Qaida in Iraq stemmed an incipient sectarian civil war.
Violence is down dramatically, raw sectarian feelings appear to have ebbed and political horse-trading is the norm.
Iraq isn't as well off as U.S. officials had hoped it would be by late August 2010, however, a deadline that Obama himself set and that isn't stipulated in the U.S.-Iraqi forces agreement. Many things have improved, but the political system remains deadlocked.
Officials had hoped that Iraq, which held elections five months ago, would form a government before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which started Aug. 11. That didn't happen. Basic services such as electricity are spotty, and there's no agreement on divvying up Iraq's oil and gas riches, and no resolution of territorial disputes between Arabs and Kurds.
Many of the problems stem from weaknesses in Iraq's 2005 Constitution. It lacks deadlines for political party leaders to form a government and leaves the president and the judiciary powerless to take charge in case of a stalemate.
"The constitution was written too early, by people grasping for power," said a senior Iraqi diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. The result is a maze of ambiguities that "would be comical if it was not causing so much pain."
Further, in a worrying sign on the security front, more Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been killed in attacks this month than at any time since September 2008, according to data from the website Icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You sometimes hear American officials in kind of unguarded moments say we're on the five-yard line and we know it's going to be hard to put the ball in the end zone but, by God, we just got to do it. My feeling is, no, we're probably more like on the 40, and we might be on our 40. There's a long way to go," said Kenneth Pollack, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.
Obama and his aides have cautioned that the Iraq mission isn't over. "The hard truth is, we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq," the president told a Disabled American Veterans conference on Aug. 2.
More such reminders are needed, former Ambassador Crocker said.
"It is important that what Americans hear (is), there is good progress... but we have major interests, and a major commitment going forward," he said. "Emphasizing those latter points is important."