Gates: U.S. troops could remain in Iraq after 2011

April 10, 2011 - 0:0

MOSUL (AP)– U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Iraq on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, said Friday the United States would entertain a wide range of requests from Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence.

After meeting with Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Gates told reporters that the Kurds are interested in an extended U.S. military presence, although the central government in Baghdad has publicly indicated it believes Iraqi security forces can stand on their own after the scheduled U.S. departure Dec. 31.
“I have the impression that there is interest, so I'm hopeful that Iraqi leaders will consult and let us know one way or the other,” Gates said. Gates said he told the Kurds as well as senior Sunni and Shiite leaders in Baghdad, “time is running out.”
All U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of this year under a deal negotiated in 2008 by the administration of President George W. Bush. But it became clear during Gates' two-day Iraq visit that an extension is increasingly likely — despite repeated public statements by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials that US troops are not needed any longer.
U.S. officials, including at least some top military officers, believe that Iraq has significant gaps in its defense capabilities, including a lack of air power to defend its own skies. They see this as posing a risk, in the absence of U.S. forces, that the political and security gains that have been achieved over the past eight years could unravel.
In remarks to U.S. troops at Camp Marez, Gates said that in his talks with a full range of top Iraqi officials they had indicated an interest in an extended U.S. troop presence.
“We're open to that,” Gates said. “It obviously would be a presence that's a fraction of the size that we have here now.”
He mentioned no numbers, but there currently are about 47,000 US troops in the country.
One soldier asked Gates how much longer the U.S. would stay if asked.
“That would be part of any negotiation,” Gates replied.
He said it could be for “a finite period of time” at an agreed number of troops, or it could be a phased drawdown for two or three years beyond 2011.