Still awaiting Iraqi request, U.S. plans possible 10,000-troop Iraq follow-on force

The United States is planning for keeping as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq next year, the Associated Press reports. The decision would require a formal request from the Iraqi government, which as yet has not issued it, though U.S. leaders have dropped numerous hints it might be a good idea.

"Already ... the White House has worked out options to keep 8,500 to 10,000 active-duty troops in Iraq to continue training security forces in 2012, according to senior Obama administration and U.S. military officials," the Associated Press reported, citing foreign diplomats in Baghdad who have also been briefed on the matter.

"We have said for a long time now if the Iraqi government asks us to maintain some level of troops beyond that end of the year deadline, we would consider it," White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists Tuesday, adding the United States has not yet received such a request.

"Right now there are no plans to keep troops in Iraq beyond" the end of the year, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Washington Post Tuesday. He added that an Iraqi request for a follow-on force "would be given serious consideration by this administration."

One troubling recent shift in the Iraqi conflict: the increasingly brazen use by Iranian-backed Shiite militias of Iranian-origin weapons in their attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, U.S. envoy to Baghdad Jim Jeffrey and the top U.S. military commander in Iraq Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Post.

The weapons "are coming in from Iran, we're certain of that," Austin told the paper.

"We're seeing more lethal weapons, more accurate weapons, more longer-range weapons," Jeffrey told the Post in an interview. "And we're seeing more sophisticated mobile and other deployment options, and we're seeing better-trained people."

Military analyst Michael Eisenstadt described the open display of Iranian fingerprints on the anti-U.S. violence in Iraq as opportunistic and designed to try to demonstrate that they are chasing U.S. forces out.

Eisenstadt, an analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, laid out for The Envoy the strategic thinking behind the new Iran-based offensive in Iraq:

One reason that the Iranian-supported 'special groups' are ramping up attacks is to generate domestic opposition in the US to an extension of the US troop presence beyond the end of 2011. They reason if the costs of maintaining a presence will go up, few will support the extension of the presence, and more will oppose it. So they hope to make a troop extension problematic in terms of both US and Iraqi politics.

Moreover, if these Iranian-supported groups can credibly claim that they scuttled efforts to extend the US presence and that they were therefore responsible for ending the occupation, they might be able to translate their resistance 'cred' into political capital in the future, as Hizballah did after expelling Israel from Lebanon in 2000.

The growing economic, political and cultural ties between the Shiite government in Baghdad and Iran were on display when Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with a visiting senior Iranian envoy Tuesday. Maliki and Iranian First Vice President Mohammed Reza Rahimi "signed six agreements to bolster shared economic, health, technology and culture interests," the Associated Press reported.

Such loyalties may mean the Iraqi government will find it too politically difficult to request a follow on U.S. force to provide stability in Iraq.