Last night The New York Times and the Huffington Post confirmed a report by Fox News that the White House wants some 3,000 troops left in Iraq by the end of the year--a sharp reduction of forces compared with the 14,000 to 18,000 requested by U.S. commanders in Iraq but a target closer to President Obama's campaign pledge of complete withdrawal by January 1, 2012. The lingering question is whether the bold exit strategy is coming from the Iraqis or President Obama. The various reports hint at different answers.
This is coming from the president The Fox News report strongly suggests that this is a political calculation by the president, saying the White House leveled a "major pushback about 'the cost and the political optics' of keeping" 45,000 troops in Iraq. The report adds that "This shift is seen by various people as a cost-saving measure and a political measure." The reports are in agreement that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is supportive of a reductiong to 3,000 or 4,000 troops. However, yesterday he denied that any decision had been made. For what it's worth, the Fox News report notes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would like 10,000 troops to remain in Iraq.
This is coming from the Iraqis The alternative is that the impetus for the 3,000 troops is coming from Iraq. Now there are various factions within Iraq jockying for different levels of U.S. forces beyond 2012, so it's not clear where the Iraqi government stands on the issue, as Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers at The New York Times explain:
In Iraq, a lingering American military presence is hugely contentious, even though some political leaders, especially among the Kurds and Sunnis, would like some American troops to stay as a buffer against what they fear will be Shiite political dominance, coupled in turn with the rising influence of neighboring Iran.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, has also indicated he would consider allowing American trainers to stay beyond the deadline, negotiated by President George W. Bush. At the same time, he owes his position as prime minister to the political followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who vehemently opposes any Americans remaining.
Now in a quote to AFP, Panetta says any decision about troop levels will come after "discussions with Baghdad." But as Allahpundit at Hot Air notes, these discussions have been ongoing. He lays out the dynamics in Iraq as such:
Panetta’s been negotiating with the Iraqis for months about whether U.S. troops will stay after the security agreement ends later this year. He said a few weeks ago that they were making progress, but “progress” in which direction? In theory, the harder Iraq is hit by terror attacks — and last month was especially bad, culminating in a suicide bombing at Baghdad’s biggest Sunni mosque — the more Maliki et al. should want a larger U.S. troop presence to continue to help with security. But the more U.S. troops there are, the less room there is for Iran and local Iraqi warlords to act as guarantors of Shiite security instead. Which of course is why Muqtada al-Sadr is threatening a new military campaign if any American boots remain on the ground next year. The internal calculus in the Iraqi government is, I take it, all about figuring out how many/few U.S. troops they can request without igniting new insanity among the various insane constituencies, internal and external, that they have to deal with. If 3,000 is in fact the number, evidently they’ve settled on “token force incapable of doing anything useful” as optimal.