Iraq likely to request longer military presence, US says
The Iraqi government is likely to ask the United States to keep some troops in the country beyond 2011, US defence secretary nominee Leon Panetta said Thursday.
Panetta, appearing before the Senate committee considering his nomination, said he expected a request would be "forthcoming at some point."
Under an agreement between the two countries, the US military in Iraq is required to be completely out by December 31, but the US has said it would be open to extending the presence if the Iraqis so desire.
Panetta said there are some 1,000 al-Qaeda operatives still in Iraq and it would be in the US interest to keep a presence there to help ensure stability prevails in the country.
"I believe that if Prime Minister Maliki - the Iraqi government - requests that we maintain a presence there, that that ought to be seriously considered by the president," Panetta said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in May that he would support asking for a longer US role if most of the country's political factions backed an extension - the first indication he could make the request. He said he would consult with political leaders and hoped to reach a decision by the end of July.
Panetta said the US would evaluate a request from al-Maliki to determine what would be needed "and over what period of time in order to make sure that the gains that we've made in Iraq are sustained."
US President Barack Obama formally ended the US combat mission in August and withdrew combat troops, reducing the presence to fewer than 50,000 soldiers. They remained to provide training and logistical support and engage in counter-terrorism.
If confirmed by the Senate, Panetta would replace Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who is due to retire June 30 and has also expressed an openness toward the US staying longer. dpa mm aw Author: Mike McCarthy