BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s main political blocs will be asked to discuss this month whether to extend U.S. troops’ presence in the country beyond the end of this year, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Wednesday.
Maliki has repeatedly said foreign troops are no longer needed but appeared to open the door to a continued U.S. presence, indicating he would abide by the decision of a majority of Iraq’s political leaders.
Maliki said the current joint security pact — which requires all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by December 31 — could not be changed and that a new security agreement would need to be drawn up if lawmakers wanted U.S. forces to stay beyond 2011.
“Since it is a big national issue, I will call all the leaders of blocs to discuss: Do you want troops to remain, how many and where?” Maliki told reporters.
“If I get their approval, then I will say yes, and if they reject it, I will say no,” he said.
Maliki said he would invite the heads of all political blocs to discuss the issue this month.
The United States is due to withdraw its remaining troops, around 47,000, from Iraq by December 31, more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. military officially moved into an advisory and assistance role to Iraq’s police and army after ending combat operations last August.
But some Iraqi and U.S. officials have expressed concern over the readiness of Iraqi troops to fend off a stubborn insurgency still capable of carrying out lethal attacks.
Last month during a visit to Iraq, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the United States would be willing to consider extending the U.S. military presence.
In a separate visit, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned Iraq’s leader that they would need to start serious discussions soon if U.S. forces were to stay beyond the scheduled withdrawal.
“They (the United States) really want to be prepared to transport their troops and equipment. It takes time ... to transfer troops and units, so they want a decision before August. After August, they will be ready to withdraw,” Maliki said.
Maliki had previously said his police and army are ready and U.S. troops would not be needed beyond the end of the year.
Any decision by the premier to extend the presence of U.S. troops is risky. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist bloc is part of Maliki’s government, could unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. forces fail to leave by the year-end, his aides said last month.
Writing by Serena Chaudhry; editing by David Stamp