US Now Says It Is in “Negotiations” With Iraq Over Troops Post-2011

The State Department today said it is now engaged in “negotiations” with Iraqi leaders about whether the United States will maintain a troop presence there beyond 2011, something that until today the U.S. characterized as informal discussions. The wording is only significant because the Iraqi legislature has yet to formally authorize negotiations, yet this shows the U.S. is prepared to move ahead anyway as the clock ticks down to the end of the year.

“We are currently in negotiations with the Iraqi government about what that post-2011 relationship might look like. Those discussions are ongoing, and you can understand that I won’t comment on the detail,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters today.

Her comment attracted little attention during the briefing, but a senior State Department official later confirmed that this is a new U.S. policy.

In fact, Nuland was asked about this very subject just yesterday and took a very different line.

“I think our public position and our private position hasn’t changed, that our plan is to withdraw by the end of the year. Were the Iraqi government to come — to come forward and make a request for some continued security assistance, we would be prepared to look at it,” she told reporters at the time.

What changed? One official said this was calling a spade a spade, since “informal” discussions on the matter had been held with Iraqi leaders since Aug. 2. A senior official says the U.S. believes there is now enough consensus among Iraqi leaders that they may want some extended US troop presence after a Status of Forces Agreement, which authorizes U.S. troops to operate in Iraq, expires at the end of the year.

The negotiations are being led by Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

The official denied that the U.S. has decided to push the issue ahead because the Iraqi political paralysis has shortened the timeline for talks so that a decision can be made by the end of the year. The official didn’t rule out U.S. troops leaving the country and returning again later next year.