As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki settles in for a second term, he's begun to talk tough on the final withdrawal of American troops, scheduled for the end of this year.
It's long been assumed that the withdrawal deadline of December 2011 would be renegotiated -- that Iraq might need some kind of troop presence beyond then. But lately, it's looking like the United States and Iraq might have to come up with another plan.
Over the past two years, U.S. troops have remained in Iraq under a treaty between the two countries known as a Status of Forces Agreement.
The treaty is set to expire at the end of this year. But American generals and Iraqi politicians have long hinted that the two sides might reach a deal to extend the deadline -- if, of course, the Iraqi government formally requested it.
But in an interview Maliki granted The Wall Street Journal last week, he said the existing agreement is "sealed" -- and subject to neither extension nor alteration. Still, he did seem to leave open the possibility of a new agreement.
Mohammad al-Askari is Maliki's defense spokesman. Explaining the Iraqi government's public position, Askari said through an interpreter, "I don't believe there is any need for them to stay after 2011. Because we are ready right now, we are fully qualified, competent. And we don't have any will or wish for them to stay here, and there won't be any American forces after 2011."
Askari recently appeared on state TV with a U.S. military spokesman. He led viewers through a lengthy presentation of how Iraq has systematically built up its armed forces since the 2003 invasion.
In Baghdad, analysts say Maliki and his aides have no choice but to publicly distance themselves from the idea of an extended U.S. troop presence. That's because Maliki's new coalition government now includes members of the fiercely anti-American bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr. And any new agreement would have to be approved by Iraq's Parliament.
So now, U.S. officials in Iraq are anticipating what they might do if all the troops actually do have to leave.
James Jeffrey, the American ambassador to Iraq, says what could happen is that some U.S. military personnel -- namely, officers and trainers -- would remain in Iraq under the auspices of the embassy. This is already the case in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere.
Jeffrey says that from the American perspective, at least, this would be perfectly legal.
"This is a normal part of a normal embassy in an area of the world where we have a large number of military sales and a robust security relationship," he says. "And it has nothing to do with stationing troops."
Most independent defense analysts agree that some U.S. troop presence in Iraq actually does make more sense, even after the deadline.
Some say those troops should help Iraqis improve their ability to analyze intelligence about militant groups, and protect Iraq's airspace from potentially hostile neighbors while helping develop Iraq's air force.
Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations says some U.S. troops should stay, mainly to play the role of peacekeepers between the Sunnis and Shiites, and Arabs and Kurds. He says that the conflicts between these groups are still too fresh for them to resolve on their own.
That's not the kind of role, he says, that a corps of military officers attached to the embassy could play.
"If these guys are staff and not combat, there are only certain discreet functions that they can physically perform," Biddle says. "Having soldiers with weapons, and some ability to kill people, visibly part of a column, is different than what amounts to an office worker in a uniform."
Biddle says the Iraqi government's position over whether it wants a combat-ready presence is likely to change over the course of this year.
As with much in Iraqi politics, he says, the question of whether U.S. troops remain beyond the December deadline will probably be resolved at the eleventh hour. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.