WASHINGTON (AFP) – US and Iraqi officials are looking into keeping 10,000 US troops in the country beyond a year’s end deadline for a complete withdrawal, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The talks are politically sensitive for both countries, with Americans keen to end their involvement in Iraq and Iraqis concerned that prolonging the troop presence could fuel sectarian tensions and protests, it said.
The paper, citing unnamed officials, said US military commanders believe that leaving at least 10,000 troops beyond 2011 could promote greater security and prevent Iran from expanding its regional influence.
However, such a plan would require presidential approval, and US President Barack Obama — a critic of the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — has not yet said whether he would sign off on it.
“We have conversations with the Iraqis constantly about security issues,” it quoted an Obama administration official as saying.
But the official added: “The Iraqis haven’t made a request for us to keep troops, and we haven’t offered.”
The paper said Iraqi officials were concerned that a lingering troop presence could fuel a popular revolt like those that have convulsed the region in recent months and toppled longtime strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia.
The United States and Iraq reached an agreement near the end of George W Bush’s administration in 2008 that outlined the drawdown of US troops and required that all of them leave by the end of this year.
But the two sides could amend the agreement by mutual consent.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki insisted on Thursday that his armed forces can maintain security, as he met with Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Baghdad.
Fewer than 50,000 US troops are currently stationed in Iraq, down from a peak of nearly 170,000 following the US-led invasion in 2003.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on a surprise trip to Iraq on April 8 that American forces were prepared to stay in any role beyond the scheduled pullout, but time was running out for Baghdad to ask.
“My basic message to them is (for us to) just be present in some areas where they still need help. We are open to that possibility,” he said. “But they have to ask, and time is running out in Washington.”
A senior American military official also said last week that Iraqi leaders should not expect US forces to return to help in a crisis after they have pulled out.