Washington - President Barack Obama has given his approval to a Pentagon plan to station U.S. combat troops in Iraq beyond 2011, provided that Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki officially requests it, according to U.S. and Iraqi sources.
But both U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that Maliki may now be reluctant to make the official request. Maliki faces severe political constraints at home, and his government is being forced by recent moves by Saudi Arabia to move even closer to Iran.
And it is no longer taken for granted by U.S. or Iraqi officials that Maliki can survive the rising tide of opposition through the summer.
As early as September 2010, the White House informed the Iraqi government that it was willing to consider keeping between 15,000 and 20,000 troops in Iraq, in addition to thousands of unacknowledged Special Operations Forces. But Obama insisted that it could only happen if Maliki requested it, according to a senior Iraqi intelligence official.
And the White House, which was worried about losing support from the Democratic Party's anti-war base as Congressional mid-term elections approached, insisted that the acknowledged troops would have to be put at least ostensibly under a State Department-run security force.
Several days after Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, the key U.S. strategic ally in the Middle East for 30 years, was forced by the pro-democracy movement to resign in early February, Iraqi officials were informed that Obama was now more convinced than before that he could not afford to be tagged with having "lost" Iraq, the intelligence official told IPS.
Proponents of a post-2011 U.S. presence in Iraq within the Obama administration had taken advantage of the generally accepted view that the Iraq War was turned around from a dismal failure into a success in 2007-08 by the troop surge and the strategy of Gen. David Petraeus.
The Defence Department officials had indicated to the Iraqis in February that Obama was now prepared to support the stationing of 17,000 U.S. combat troops beyond 2011, contingent on Maliki's sending an official letter of request to Obama, according to the Iraqi intelligence official.
The Pentagon also began making contingency plans for the stationing of the 3rd Infantry Division in the tense city of Kirkuk, according to the official.
But since those signs of greater determination by Obama to leave a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq, the likelihood of Maliki's making the official request for the troops has come increasingly into question.
Both U.S. and Iraqi officials now acknowledge that Maliki's need for Moqtada al-Sadr's political support and the degree to which Sadr has regained influence in the Shi'a south after having lost it in mid-2008 represent serious political constraints on his position regarding a possible continuation of the U.S. troop presence.
Sadr's calling on his followers to stay away from a mass demonstration against Maliki's government Feb. 25 may have saved Maliki's government from collapsing, the Iraqi intelligence official told IPS.
And Sadr continues to oppose a U.S. military presence in Iraq. After returning to Iraq in January, Sadr had issued a fiery message reaffirming that the "first objective should be to get rid of the occupation".
"If al-Maliki were to ask for U.S. troops, the Sadrists would try to unseat him," said the Iraqi intelligence official, who added that Maliki's survival through the summer is no longer taken for granted.
An official U.S. source also suggested that Maliki's government could collapse before a decision is made on a request for a continuing U.S. troop presence.
But the Saudi dispatch of combat troops to Bahrain last month to repress the pro-democracy movement that represented the Shi'a majority in that country may have made a move toward the United States difficult, if not impossible for Maliki.
That aggressive Saudi action against the Shi’a of Bahrain has made it clearer that Saudi Arabia must be regarded as Iraq's primary enemy, according to the Iraqi intelligence official.
But it is only part of a larger problem of Iraqi conflict with Saudi Arabia. Iraqi intelligence has indications that the original al Qaeda in Iraq network is in the process of leaving the country for Libya, but that another organisation now operating under the name of al Qaeda in Iraq is actually a Saudi-supported Baathist paramilitary group run from Jordan by a former high-ranking general under Saddam Hussein.
The need to defend against Saudi infiltration of Iraq and be fully committed on one side of the Sunni-Shi'a divide in the region means that Maliki has had to move even closer to Iran.
Political unrest in Iraq in the form of popular protests, mainly over the failure of his government to improve basic services to the population, has also forced Maliki to reduce the priority his government had previously put on military cooperation with the U.S.
One indicator of Maliki's intentions is his apparent hesitation about proceeding with the purchase of 18 of the latest model U.S. F-16 fighter planes. Complete with advanced air-to-ground and air-to-air munitions, the deal was estimated to be worth 4.2 billion dollars.
When the deal was officially announced last September, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon's office for foreign arms sales, had crowed that it would "ensure a U.S. military presence in Iraq for years to come".
In late January, the U.S. command in Iraq was so convinced that Maliki was about to sign the agreement that it mistakenly put out a press release announcing that the signing had already taken place.
But after protests began in Baghdad and Karbala in February, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the F-16 contract had been "postponed this year". He explained that the 900 million dollars required as a down payment on the F- 16 deal would be spent on increasing the total amount spent on food rations for needy people from three billion to four billion dollars.
Even though the Iraqi government announced Mar. 1 that higher oil prices would add eight billion dollars to Iraq's budget this year, the F-16 fighter deal has nevertheless been downgraded to 12 planes, with less sophisticated weapons systems. The deal is now estimated to be worth just over one-fourth of the original, with a down payment that has shrunk to 250 million dollars.
But it is still far from certain that Maliki will sign the deal, according to the Iraqi military source, because Maliki has decided on the building of a multi-billion-dollar national electric power grid.
If the Iraqi premier does not ask for U.S. troops to remain after the expiration of the November 2008 U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement, it will be a major blow to the assertion made over the past three years portraying Maliki as an ally of the United States who wants U.S. help in keeping Iraq out of the Iranian sphere of influence.
The reality is much less favourable to the rosy view of U.S. influence in Iraq. Press accounts have revealed that key events in that period - including the selection of Maliki as prime minister in 2006, the 2007 ceasefires in Basrah and Baghdad, and the renewed political alliance between Maliki and Sadr in 2010 - were all brokered by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Close security and political relations between Maliki's government and Iran are based not only on a shared past of Shi'a activism but continuing conflict between Shi'a states and a Saudi-led anti-Shi'a coalition.