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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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Hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army mounted a major offensive against US forces early in the war, announced last month that even if US military forces withdraw, he would consider an expanded embassy grounds for reactivating his fighters.

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Mr. Sadr's political bloc is crucial to Mr. Maliki's carefully constructed coalition government; if Sadrists pull out of the coalition, the government could collapse. Many in former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, the major Sunni-backed faction, would likely favor some US troops remaining, but Mr. Allawi has refused to participate in Maliki's government, saying it has reneged on its promise of power sharing.

The Kurds, who benefited from US protection under Mr. Hussein, are the biggest proponent of a continued US military presence. One proposal would have Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, who mediated between Maliki and Allawi in trying to form a government, bring them together again.

Maliki has not raised the issue of a new US agreement with his cabinet, and he doesn't even have a defense minister to explain the capabilities of Iraqi security forces to parliament. The Defense and Interior Ministry posts are still vacant more than a year after the elections.

US set to expand Baghdad embassy, already biggest in the world

The US plans a large civilian presence in Iraq regardless of whether US forces stay. US Ambassador Jim Jeffrey recently told reporters that the US embassy here, already the biggest in the world, plans to double in size next year to about 16,000 people. That would include diplomatic missions outside Baghdad along with support staff and security contractors. US officials now say that number is no longer accurate but decline to put a new figure on it.

From the embassy, the State Department plans to direct a huge Iraqi police training program as well as a wide range of other programs under an agreement signed with Iraq two years ago.

Among the least visible but most valuable US assistance to Iraq is the political support that Washington has and can wield at the United Nations and in other forums to shield Iraqi assets from financial claims, settle Hussein-era disputes involving Kuwait, and have Iraq admitted to the World Trade Organization.

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