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US troops in Iraq: US, Maliki weigh possible extension

Amid the volatile Arab Spring and ongoing security threats in Iraq, top US military officials have expressed openness to keeping troops on the ground past the Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal.

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has expressed an openness to keeping a US military presence in Iraq past December.

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"Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some US troops to stay, I am certain my government will welcome that dialogue," he said at a late April news conference in Baghdad. He warned, however, that that request had to be made within the next few weeks.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on May 11 that he was open to an extended US stay if there was enough backing from Iraqis, but was vague about how much support he would require – and from whom. He has insisted that Iraqi forces can take care of their internal security – "our agencies and our forces have become competent and capable of controlling the security situation," he said last month – but acknowledged that Iraq needs help meeting outside threats.

"We've not had the ability to really focus in earnest on providing for an external defensive capability. So the Iraqis still need to work on that," Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of United States Forces – Iraq (USF-I), told reporters recently. He said Iraqis also still lacked the ability to defend their skies and needed to develop their intelligence capability and logistics.

In addition to advanced training required on US tanks and artillery they've purchased, they also need training on how to use them together. "It's pretty complex – they're likely to have continued needs well into the future," says Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for USF-I.

Key concern: Peace along disputed internal borders

But the major and more politically sensitive area of concern is the US military's role in keeping tensions from erupting along the disputed boundaries between the Kurdish-controlled north and central Iraq. In those flash-point areas, US soldiers have served as a buffer between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi government soldiers.

"Let's be clear – the reason we should stay is to keep the Iraqis from fighting each other, particularly the Kurds and the Arabs," says Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus and a professor of military history at Ohio State University. "We can couch it in whatever terms we want to but ... they need us to protect them from themselves," he said in a telephone interview.

If there is no new agreement, after the end of this year the only US troops that will be allowed to be here will be about 150 marines protecting the embassy and approximately 115 military attachés within the diplomatic mission. The US military could sign bilateral agreements for joint training exercises and conduct programs to train Iraqi officers in the US, but not have troops based on Iraqi soil.

Sadr threatens to reactivate his fighters

Any troops remaining here under a new agreement would be far fewer than the current 47,000 still in the country – possibly only several thousand. But for many Iraqis, any American soldiers in the country are too many.

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