Washington is worried about its future bases in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not yet formally or publicly confirmed the secret agreements he reached with US Defense Minister Leon Panetta in the second week of July on the size of the US force to remain in the country after the general withdrawal or where this force is to be located.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 500 of July 15: America's Post-Withdrawal Formation in Iraq – Four Big Air Bases, 15,000 troops to defend Baghdad and Oil, and Face Iran.)
The Pentagon is especially concerned that the Iraqi prime minister may at some point back out of some part of those understandings or even avoid committing the Baghdad government to a decision about whether or not to invite a US military nucleus to stay in the country.
American commanders in Iraq fear that, after secretly accepting a continued American troop presence, Al-Maliki will one day, without warning, bow to Iranian or domestic pressure and tell US contingents publicly and embarrassingly to leave.
Their uncertainty was strengthened Tuesday, July 26, by an unforeseen statement from an Iraqi government spokesman that Iraqi forces had taken charge of security from US troops at the oil export terminals in the southern port of Basra.
An Iraqi Navy spokesman then issued a revised statement: "Seventy-percent of the American troops left at the port left the facility and the rest have stayed to train Iraqi forces. They will also withdraw gradually," he said.
Neither statement was correct.
In the secret, unacknowledged understandings Panetta reached with al-Maliki, it was agreed that US naval and marine forces would remain in charge of Basra oil port indefinitely. There was certainly no suggestion of a gradual withdrawal.
Panetta seeks backup arrangements in Kurdistan
With these anomalies in mind, the US Defense Secretary July 13 headed straight from Baghdad to semi-autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq, arriving July 13 in the capital of Irbil for talks with President Masoud Barzani and other officials of the Kurdish Republican Government, the KRG.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that Panetta came away from his three days of talks in Irbil with secret military accords which provide back-up for the deals he concluded earlier with the Iraqi prime minister and fill in the blanks left by Baghdad's uncertain behavior.
Their substance is revealed hereunder:
1. Bases would be made available to the US army and air force in any part of Kurdistan commensurate with the shared security requirements of both parties.
2. The United States pledges to refrain from attacking countries bordering on the KRG – Iran, Turkey and Syria – unless from those countries, military forces pose a direct threat to the independence and territorial integrity of the Kurdish republic.
3. The United States will continue to train and equip the KRG's Pershmerga army and build its facilities.
4. American troops will be posted in important Kurdish towns and help local forces secure the Barzani regime.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources can list those towns as Sulaimaniya in the east near the Iranian border, and Erbil and Zakho in the north near the Turkish border.
The biggest US facility in Kurdistan, that will also include a large air base, will be established at Bakrajo, in the east.
Barzani's key pre-condition for the deal with Washington was permanent deployment of US military in three more places: the oil town of Kirkuk, Jebel Sinjir on the Syrian border and Hanakin in central Iraq between Kurdistan and Baghdad.
5. On those terms, the KRG will be ready to host any American military force evacuated from Iraq in the future.
Iran pounces with a Revolutionary Guards incursion of Kurdistan
Dr. Mahmoud Othman, a KRG member of the Iraqi parliament, said in Baghdad this week: "The Kurds say, 'We are not against prolonging the American presence,' but if Iraq decides that US troops should leave, the Kurds won't have a problem with it. However, we would like for them to remain in the disputed territories, and all Kurdish parties in Baghdad share this view."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly: The disputed territories refer to areas inhabited by Kurds south of the KRG and outside its borders. They are subject to Kurdish claims which Baghdad opposes.
Our Iranian and military sources report Tehran reacted to the US-Kurdish pact on the instant.
Iran's Press TV reported that 5,000 troops had deployed along Iran's northwestern borders with Iraq and on July 14, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards force crossed in and captured three bases of the PJAK, the rebel Iranian-Kurdish movement.
Tehran accused President Barzani of aiding these insurgents behind the backs of the central government in Baghdad.
The Iranian military presence in the KRG is believed in Washington and Irbil to have been pared down meanwhile to the main PJAK base in the Qandil Mountains. Its incursion is read there as a message from Tehran that permission for a US military presence in Kurdistan can work just as well for Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Matters there could easily get out of hand if Iranian troops deepened their penetration of the KRG on the pretext of "hot pursuit of terrorists." This would pose the new Kurdish-American military pacts with a tough challenge a lot sooner than the signatories imagined.