U.S. offer on table to extend Iraq stay
BAGHDAD -- The White House is offering to keep up to 10,000 troops in Iraq next year, U.S. officials say, despite opposition from many Iraqis and key Democratic Party allies who demand that President Obama bring home the American military as promised.
Any extension of the military's presence, however, depends on a formal request from Baghdad -- which must weigh questions about the readiness of Iraqi security forces against fears of renewed militant attacks and unrest if U.S. soldiers stay beyond the December pullout deadline.
Already, though, the White House has worked out options to keep 8,500 to 10,000 active-duty troops in Iraq to continue training security forces in 2012, according to senior Obama administration and U.S. military officials. The figures also were noted by foreign diplomats in Baghdad briefed on the issue.
All spoke on condition of anonymity in interviews during the past two weeks.
Without a request from Iraq, fewer than 200 active-duty troops would stay at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as military advisers, a role that is common for American diplomatic missions worldwide.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday said the Pentagon is still planning for all troops to withdraw by year's end, noting that time is running out for Iraq's government to ask them to stay.
"We have said for a long time now if the Iraqi government asks us to maintain some level of troops beyond that end of the year deadline, we would consider it," Carney told reporters in Washington.
He appeared to back off that possibility, however, adding: "That doesn't necessarily mean we would do it. We would just consider it. And I really don't have any more information on that possible outcome because, again, we haven't even gotten a request."
After more than eight years and more than 4,450 U.S. military deaths, any change in the U.S. military withdrawal timetable in Iraq could open up difficult political confrontations for Obama as pressure builds to close out the Iraq mission and stick to pledges to draw down troops in Afghanistan.
The Senate's top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, said that the high cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq -- given the nation's mounting debt crisis and Iraq's fledgling security gains -- is no longer necessary.
Reid, the Senate majority leader, estimated nearly $1 trillion has been spent in Iraq since the United States invaded in 2003, including $50 billion this year.
"As Iraq becomes increasingly capable, it is time for our own troops to return home by the end of the year and for these precious resources to be directed elsewhere," Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said in the statement. "There is no question that the United States must continue to provide support for the Iraqis as they progress, but now is the time for our military mission to come to a close."
Running for president in 2008, Obama promised to withdraw all troops from Iraq -- from what he described years earlier as "a dumb war, a rash war." Shortly after he took office, he pledged to stick to a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline negotiated between Washington and Baghdad for all U.S. forces to leave Iraq.
Recently, however, the door gradually has been opening to push the deadline. In May, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled Obama was willing to keep troops in Iraq beyond December. Last week, Navy Vice Adm. William McRaven, nominated to command U.S. special operations forces, said a small commando force should remain.
Though violence has dramatically dropped from just a few years ago, when Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war, attacks still happen almost daily. Yesterday, Iraqi police said at least 35 people were killed when two bombs exploded outside a city council headquarters just north of Baghdad.
In Baghdad, the debate over whether troops should stay past the deadline is topic No. 1 for Iraq's government.
Iraq's top military commander, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, has long maintained that Iraqi security forces need another decade of training and aid before they are ready to protect the country alone, especially its air space and borders. Iraq sits on the fault line between Shiite powerhouse Iran and mostly Sunni nations across the rest of the Mideast, which share U.S. concerns about Tehran's influence growing in Baghdad if American troops leave.
Iraqi Kurds, who have long relied on American forces to protect them, are lobbying for U.S. troops to stay.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to publicly endorse an extension. One of his critical political allies -- a Shiite movement headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- has threatened widespread violence if troops stay. Al-Sadr's militias once waged fierce attacks on U.S. forces.
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