AT one minute to midnight next December 31st, all US and British forces in Iraq might have to stop normal operations, in effect laying down their arms and preparing for evacuation. That was the extreme scenario sketched by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday when commenting on the latest breakdown in negotiations with the Iraqi government for a “status of forces agreement” to replace the existing UN mandate which expires at the end of the year. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff commented in more specific terms: “Iraq army and police forces would not be able to counter insurgency and terrorist violence after 31 December without the help of the American military. The Iraqis will not be ready to provide their own security.”

Last week the US thought it had finalised a deal with the Iraq government that would have allowed US forces to remain until the end of 2011 and would also have provided exemption from Iraq law for American nationals. However, when opposition parties in Iraq heard of these conditions they persuaded Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to withdraw his agreement.

The United States believes that Iran is working behind the scenes to limit the duration of the US's presence in Iraq. The Iraqi security forces number some 600'000. The fact that they would not be able to keep the peace without American help runs counter to much of the optimistic talk being heard from Washington and London about Iraq's future.