BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s fractious political blocs will take two more weeks to decide whether U.S. troops should extend their stay in Iraq beyond a year-end deadline, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on Saturday.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has asked Iraq’s Sunni, Kurdish and Shi’ite political factions to debate and decide whether U.S. forces should stay or leave on schedule, and indicated he would abide by the majority.
Under a security pact signed between the two governments in 2008, Washington is due to withdraw its remaining troops, numbering about 46,000, from Iraq by December 31, more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
U.S. officials have said they are willing to consider leaving some troops in Iraq beyond the deadline, but Iraq must make a request.
Talabani, Maliki, parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, and other leaders met on Saturday to discuss efforts to finalise a government and the possible U.S. extension.
“We agreed that our brothers in the political parties are to consult their parties and come back again after two weeks with a final stand,” Talabani, a Kurd, said.
The two-week deadline for the individual factions to make their choices known did not mean Iraq’s final decision was imminent. The blocs are known to have disparate views on a U.S. troops extension.
Maliki, a Shi’ite, has said repeatedly in the past two months that foreign troops are no longer needed but appeared to open the door to a continued U.S. presence.
Any decision by the premier to extend the presence of U.S. troops is risky. Anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist bloc is a key ally of Maliki’s government, has threatened to unleash his militia of Mehdi Army if U.S. forces fail to leave by year-end.
Some Iraqi and U.S. officials have expressed concern over the readiness of Iraqi military forces to defend Iraq and to fend off a stubborn insurgency still capable of lethal attacks.
Naseer al-Ani, Talabani’s chief of staff, said the leaders agreed on Saturday to delay the U.S. troop decision until the parties agree on interior and defence ministers.
Maliki did not name permanent ministers to the two posts, which control the police and army, when he formed his Cabinet in December. He has been serving as acting minister for the key security jobs.
“This issue (U.S. presence in Iraq) was delayed till the issue of security ministers is solved, because these two issues are connected with each other,” Ani said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said recently Iraq had not yet requested a troop extension and time was running out.