US troops may stay in Iraq beyond 2011
Kuala Lumpur – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday said Washington was open to keeping troops in Iraq beyond a 2011 deadline, but it was up to Baghdad to make a request.
"In terms of the future strategic relationship beyond the end of 2011, I would say that the initiative clearly needs to come from the Iraqis," Gates said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
"We are open to discussing it," he said.
Gates, however, said any talks on the issue would have to wait until Iraqi leaders agree a power-sharing deal and name key ministers, amid months of stalemate following parliamentary elections.
"We'll stand by and we're ready to have that discussion if and when they want to raise it with us," he said.
A security accord requires all US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, but officials in both countries have suggested a smaller US mission will probably stay on after next year to provide air power and other military assistance.
Advise and assist
About 50 000 US troops are currently in Iraq under a new "advise and assist" mission with Iraqi forces taking the lead.
Eight months after parliamentary elections in March, Iraqi politicians have yet to form a government amid a deadlock between Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish blocs.
Rival Iraqi leaders met to discuss a proposal on Monday in the northern city of Arbil but emerged without a deal.
Iraq's second general election since the 2003 US-led invasion ended in deadlock after none of the main parties won enough of the 325 seats in parliament to form a majority government.
Retired American officers and analysts say the US may need to keep thousands of military personnel in Iraq beyond next year to contain sectarian tensions and to bolster Baghdad's fledgling military.
Baghdad's military remains heavily dependent on US logistical support, air power, equipment and expertise, while many Baghdad politicians privately acknowledge that American troops are needed as a peacekeeping force in reserve.