Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said for the first time Thursday that Iraq may ask U.S. troops to stay in his country beyond a previously agreed 2011 deadline for withdrawal.
While Iraqi and American military figures have spoken privately about a longer-term presence in part to maintain U.S. military equipment ordered by Iraq, the Iraqi prime minister has not previously acknowledged this publicly. When U.S. combat troops exited Iraqi cities last month under the terms of a Status of Forces Agreement, Mr. al-Maliki declared a national holiday to celebrate the milestone toward full Iraqi sovereignty.
On Thursday, however, in response to a question posed at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Mr. al-Maliki said that “if Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this at that time based on the needs of Iraq.”
He added, “I am sure that the will, the prospects and the desire for such cooperation is found among both parties.”
The Status of Forces Agreement requires all U.S. troops to exit the country by the end of 2011. But Pentagon officials and U.S. diplomats privately have left open the prospect that the Iraqi government may seek to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
Kurdish leaders and Sunni Muslim heads of a tribal federation known as the Awakening also have said U.S. troops would be welcome in Iraq past the 2011 deadline if the agreement is modified.
About 130,000 American troops are in Iraq.
John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who has trained advisers for the Iraqi and Afghan militaries and is now president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said he was surprised by Mr. al-Maliki’s comments.
“The fact he said this before the [Iraqi] elections is what surprises me,” Mr. Nagl said.
He added, “I do think it’s significant. The relationship between the United States and Iraq is moving towards a normal relationship between two countries with mutual interests and it is in America’s interest that Iraq remain secure and it is clearly in the interest of the Iraqi government that the U.S. give it assistance to counter both internal and external threats. That is true today and it will remain true in 2012.”
Iraq is expected to hold national elections next year.
Both Mr. al-Maliki and President Obama have said in the past that the 2011 deadline was a hard date that did not allow any wiggle room. Mr. Obama reaffirmed this at a joint press conference with Mr. al-Maliki on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, the Iraqi military has contracted to buy U.S. equipment including M1 Abrams tanks and Bell helicopters that would require specialized training. Delivery of those items would not start until the end of 2011.
Kenneth Katzman, a senior specialist on Iraq at the Congressional Research Service, agreed that the al-Maliki comments signaled a shift.
“It is significant because it would appear to indicate that at least some U.S. troops are likely to remain in Iraq beyond the end of the 2011 deadline where previously it was said they would all be out,” Mr. Katzman said.
He added, “It would also appear to indicate that Prime Minister Maliki’s confidence in the Iraqi Security Force’s ability to handle security on their own is in doubt. He is not completely confident of their ability to handle security on their own.”
Since the U.S. toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, American forces have trained Iraq’s military, police, intelligence and security services. After the launch of a U.S. surge in 2007, training took place literally in the field as American soldiers fought alongside Iraqi counterparts to defeat insurgents.
Mr. al-Maliki, who is on his first trip to Washington since the Obama administration took office, also refuted reports that the U.S. release from detention last month of Laith Qazali, a former leader of a Shi’ite militant group known as the League of the Righteous, was part of a negotiation to release British hostages taken by the group in 2007 and still being held.
Mr. Qazali, along with his brother Qais, was accused by the U.S. military of masterminding the execution-style slayings of five U.S. soldiers outside Karbala in January 2007.
Mr. al-Maliki said Laith Qazali “was not involved in spilling blood” and that the release was part of a process of sectarian reconciliation in Iraq.