BAGHDAD | The Obama administration would keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the agreed final withdrawal date of Dec. 31, 2011, if the Iraqi government wants them, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday.
But the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate the extension, Mr. Gates said during what he said is probably his final visit to this war-torn country.
Whether to negotiate an extended U.S. military presence is up to the Iraqis, he said, adding that he thought an extension might make sense.
"We are willing to have a presence beyond , but we've got a lot of commitments," Mr. Gates said, not only in Afghanistan and Libya but also in Japan, where he said 19 U.S. Navy ships and about 18,000 U.S. military personnel are assisting in earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor relief efforts.
"So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning," he added. "I think there is interest in having a continuing presence. The politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis."
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the country is lacking important security capabilities. Those include the defense of its airspace and the wherewithal to supply and maintain its own forces.
Asked in an interview if all Iraqi government officials are aware of these gaps, Gen. Austin replied, "Some more than others."
He said the government's inability thus far to appoint a defense minister and an interior minister has hampered its ability to make informed decisions about whether to ask the Americans to stay longer.
Speaking to a group of reporters traveling with Mr. Gates, Gen. Austin gave the strong impression that he thinks Iraq needs a U.S. military presence beyond December, but he said he had not yet been asked to provide a recommendation to Washington.
He said Iraq faces the possibility of a "more violent environment" next year, given the absence of U.S. military force and the failure to resolve key political problems, like the Kurd-Arab tensions in Kirkuk and elsewhere in the north.
The U.S. now has about 47,000 troops in Iraq, and they will begin leaving in large numbers in late summer or early fall.
The U.S. led an invasion in March 2003 that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein a month later, but an insurgency soon set in and the U.S. got mired in a conflict that has lasted far longer - and cost far more American and Iraqi lives - than Washington had anticipated.
Mr. Gates also said civil unrest in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, with majority Shiite Muslims pushing for an end to rule by the minority Sunnis, has created tensions in Iraq, whose Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is concerned about Bahrain's crackdown on Shiites.
Mr. Gates said he expected to discuss this subject with Mr. al-Maliki in private meetings later Thursday.