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Is Iran killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq?

June has been the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Iraq since May, 2009 -- with 11 deaths, including two soldiers killed Sunday in northern Iraq. The American combat mission officially ended in August 2010, and the 45,000 U.S. forces that are still there -- ostensibly in an advisory and training capacity -- are supposed to stick to their bases and not take part in combat missions without the Iraqi government's permission. So, what's behind the jump in deaths?

Beyond the fact that the security situation is still tenuous, U.S. soldiers are likely being targeted more now because there is talk that Iraqi and American officials will try to keep additional troops in the country past the December deadline to pull all U.S. forces out, according to Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi diplomat to the United Nations who now teaches law at Indiana University. A coalition of militant groups and outside actors is strongly opposed to that and are using violence to send a message to Washington.

"That's the primary driver," said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who tracks Iraqi security issues closely. "The Iranians and Sadrists are taking it very seriously."

The Sadrists are a sectarian militia affiliated with hard-line cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who adamantly opposes the U.S. presence.

In 2008, the United States and Iraq agreed that all American forces would leave the country by the end of this year. The U.S. is open to keeping troops beyond that date, but only if Iraq asks, according to the Associated Press.

And it's not clear yet that the Iraqis will. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under significant pressure from political allies, including Sadr, whose backing last year allowed him to win a second term as prime minister.

According to the New York Times, Sadr has said that unless the United States fully withdraws its troops by the end of the year, he will reactivate his Mahdi Army, which was responsible for much of the violence against U.S. troops earlier in the war but was formally disbanded in 2008.

Iran also opposes an extension, said Istrabadi. He said various groups that don't necessarily completely agree with each other are working together. "It's a situation where the enemy of my enemy is my friend."  

Knights said that when talk of an agreement heated up beginning in the spring, attacks on U.S. soldiers and personnel also increased -- including attacks on U.S. bases, with more sophisticated weaponry and an increased quality in the attacks, which Knights said indicates Iranian backing.

"They raised their game, so to speak," Knights said. "They brought in more experienced operators and are supporting Shiite militants in southern Iraq. The result has been better lethality."

The message, Knights said, is "Don't stay. Reconsider."

"They think the U.S. is casualty-adverse."

AFP/Getty Images

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Why Republicans really want a louder Obama

Ezra Klein muses on why Republicans seem to intent on President Obama becoming more personally involved in the debt ceiling debates:

“I believe it is time for the President to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue,” said Eric Cantor in his prepared statement. Mitch McConnell’s floor remarks were titled, “Where’s the President?” Even Chris Christie is getting into the act. “If you’re the executive you’ve got to be the guy who’s out there pushing and leading,” he said on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”

Interestingly, plenty of liberals would agree with the Republicans on this one. They hate the White House’s tendency to keep Obama on the sidelines until late in the fourth quarter. Obama is more popular than any of the Republicans and many of his supporters believe that he’d be able to negotiate a better deal if he took his case directly to the public. That’s not, presumably, an analysis the GOP agrees with, which means one side or the other has this wrong.

Klein gives several possible explanations, including:

The White House, looking toward 2012, is determined to keep Obama above the political fray. Republicans, looking toward 2012, are determined to drag him into it. If Washington is going to be bitter and divisive and unable to do the country’s work, the GOP wants that to be part of Obama’s brand, not just an anchor around the necks of incumbent legislators.

As it happens, I have a piece in the new print issue of FP looking into some recent research on presidential popularity during times of divided government which suggests a similar pattern to what Klein describes:

Over the last half-century, voters have been about 17 percent more likely to approve of the commander in chief's performance when Congress is controlled by the opposing party, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of Politics. Political scientists typically attributed this to the fact that voters tend to be more likely to assign blame than praise: When the president is less powerful, there's less reason to criticize him. 

From a rational choice perspective, there's little benefit for Obama to being front and center in the debt ceiling debates.

In foreign policy, obviously, things work a little differently. The president has more power to act independently of Congress. In the case of Libya, this administration has a very liberal interpretation of how far that power extends. But researchers have found that the public seems just as likely to give the president more of the benefit of the doubt during times of divided government for a couple of possible reasons I discuss in the piece. Though this president doesn't really appear to be benefiting from the phenomenon. 

There is a similar phenomenon in foreign policy of opponents who don't share any of the president's foreign policy goals demanding that he show more "resolve" and "leadership" in implementing them. Take Michele Bachmann on Libya: 

Our policy in Libya is substantially flawed. It's interesting. President Obama's own people said that he was leading from behind. The United States doesn't lead from behind. As commander in chief, I would not lead from behind.

We are the head. We are not the tail. The president was wrong. All we have to know is the president deferred leadership in Libya to France. That's all we need to know. The president was not leading when it came to Libya.

This doesn't really make any sense. Bachman thinks the Libya intervention is a disastrously misguided mission, but America should be taking a more prominent role in it? ("We may be going straight to hell but damned if we're going to let the French get there first!")

It is, however, safe to say that the president has not seemed anxious to publicly discuss the intervention. It's understandably frustrating for both proponents and opponents of the mission that the president seems to feel no need to closely identify himself with it.