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Iraq's Maliki signals he may let US troops extend their stay

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he may extend the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline if at least 70 percent of Iraq's political leadership back the idea.

By Sahar Issa, and Roy GutmanMcClatchy Newspapers / May 12, 2011

In this June 9, 2009, file photo, a girl peers from her front gate as a U.S. Army soldier from A Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment patrols in western Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq's prime minister said Wednesday, May 11, 2011 that he might ask thousands of U.S. troops to remain in the country next year provided that a solid majority of the main political parties back the request at a meeting this month.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File

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Baghdad

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday that he'd engage in a months-long consultation with Iraq's many political factions before deciding whether to ask the United States to keep some troops in the country.

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Mr. Maliki said he'd back a continued US troop presence if he found that at least 70 percent of the country's political leadership favored such a move. He said he'd try to reach a decision by the end of July.

The Americans "need time to prepare and get ready for the withdrawal, so they want my decision before August," he said.

The announcement was the first official indication that Maliki might be willing to ask the United States to keep troops in Iraq after Dec. 31, when they're scheduled to leave under a status of forces agreement between the countries.

The decision to extend their presence is fraught with political peril. Iraq's Kurds and Sunni Muslims favor an extension, but Shiite Muslims in Maliki's own bloc are opposed.

Maliki said his political partners preferred "that I shouldn't carry the responsibility alone." So he'll ask other political leaders whether they want US forces to remain and if so, how many, where and until when.

He indicated that the parliament would make the final decision.

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Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has threatened violence if US troops remain beyond December, but Maliki said Sadr should take part in the debate like everyone else.

"Realistically, there is no 100 percent consensus on such an issue," Maliki told a news conference. If 80 to 90 percent approved, or even 70 to 80 percent, the others should "fall in line with them, or leave the political process," he said.

Maliki declined to spell out his own view of how the debate should come out. However, he said he'd leave the recommendation to Iraq's top security officials, many of whom favor a continued US presence.

Maliki said his first step would be to call in the heads of the main political blocs to see where they stood.

"If I find that they are all for it, then I will say yes. And if I find that they reject it, then I will say no. We have time yet," he said.

"We will hear the voice of the citizen and the politician and civil society," he said. "After that I will meet with the heads of blocs and officials in the state, maybe the governors of the provinces."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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