The US should keep as many as 13,000 troops in Iraq beyond the end-of-year deadline for ending its eight-year combat mission there to help keep the peace around hot spots, according to John McCain, the influential Republican senator.
Having backed the US involvement in Libya and argued for a continued presence in Afghanistan, Mr McCain tells the Financial Times that there is a “compelling case” for keeping US forces in Iraq into 2012 even as his party calls for troops to come home.
“I’m talking 10,000-13,000 specifically for intelligence capabilities, air capabilities and also as a peacekeeping force up in the disputed areas around Kirkuk and that area,” Mr McCain said in a video interview with the FT’s View from DC, referring to the disputed oil region. “I think there is a compelling case.”
The 46,000 US troops still in Iraq are due to leave by December 31 and it would require a new agreement approved by the Iraqi parliament for any of them to stay into next year, a significant challenge given the political disarray plaguing Baghdad.
US officials say that Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, has signalled he wants some US troops to remain but that he is having trouble securing agreement from other political leaders, not least because of the impasse between his State of Law party and the Iraqiya party led by his rival, Iyad Allawi.
The dispute, combined with worsening sectarian tensions and popular unrest inspired by the Arab Spring, has prevented the filling of the three security ministers posts: defence, interior and national security.
June was the worst month for US troop casualties in Iraq in three years, and sectarian tensions have revived in reaction to regional protests.
Robert Gates, the defence secretary until last week, told CNN last month that the US could keep a "residual American presence" beyond December 2011 for training and to "participate in counter-terrorism".
The Pentagon is still waiting for an official request from the Iraqi government to stay, as the deadline for complete withdrawal looms. Although the US military has consolidated and closed many of its bases in Iraq, it still has a huge infrastructure there that would need to start being dismantled this summer if the US is to meet the end-of-year deadline.
Mr Maliki has previously said his government would decide by August if it wanted to request a troop extension but that time frame looks increasingly unrealistic.
“We're talking with them but they still have to figure out at their end what they want to do,” a Pentagon spokesman said. “And we would have to figure out precisely what the mission would be. It's not a question of the number of troops that would remain, it's a question of how those forces would be used”
But Mr McCain, a navy veteran and strong advocate for the military, said he was optimistic agreement could be reached.
“The United States has got to come forth with our proposal as to what we think they need and then I believe that it's very possible – and I emphasise possible – that the Iraqis could then decide unanimously that they want the residual US presence, which would certainly be non-combat and would certainly be largely technical,” he said.
Mr McCain's stance is likely to be unpopular within his own party, as a growing chorus of fiscal conservatives calls for an end to the US ventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, driven by concerns about the US's budget deficit problem.
But Mr McCain, the ranking member of the Senate armed services committee, said it was “in America's economic interest to have our security interests not imperilled”.
“I understand the war weariness of the American people ... but I also believe that our interests are our values, for one thing,” he told the FT, adding that he was “puzzled” when people say the US should not act when Muammer Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has been promising to go house to house and kill Libyans who oppose him.
“We promised there would never be another Srebrenica, another Rwanda, so how could we have sat by and watched Gaddafi mercilessly slaughter his own people?” Mr McCain said.
With the campaign in Libya taking much longer than anticipated and the US military accused of “leading from behind” while less equipped European forces take the lead, Mr McCain made a case for increased US involvement.
“I've always been in favour of the use of additional air power. The AC-130 gunships and the A-10 are unique assets the United States has,” he said, adding that ground troops should not be sent. “It's one place in the world where air power can really have a decisive effect. It's not the triple canopy jungle of Vietnam. It's wide open spaces, and air power can have a decisive role.”