- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday he might ask thousands of U.S. troops to remain in the country next year, provided a solid majority of the main political parties back the request at a meeting this month.

Mr. al-Maliki’s comments indicated a shift from his earlier stance that there would be no U.S. troops past this year. But his insistence on having a consensus before making the decision indicates Mr. al-Maliki’s worry that he’ll be blamed for such a politically risky decision.

The prime minister told reporters he will meet with Iraqi political leaders by the end of May to gauge support for having U.S. troops stay beyond a December withdrawal deadline.

The Obama administration has said it wants to know within weeks whether Baghdad will seek to continue more than eight years of a heavy U.S. military presence in Iraq. During a trip to Iraq in April, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged the Iraqis to decide very soon, saying they had a matter of weeks, because the U.S. must begin planning its exit.

Sunni and Kurdish leaders generally want U.S. troops to remain to help the nation become more stable and to continue training security forces that are still unprepared to defend their borders. But hardline Shiites, who helped Mr. al-Maliki secure a second term in office last year, have threatened to revolt if American soldiers remain. In recent weeks Iraqi demonstrators in the northern city of Mosul and in the western Anbar province have demanded American forces leave on time.

“I will bring the leaders of the political blocs together. If they say yes, I will agree, and if they say no, I will reject it,” Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, said during a 90-minute news conference at his office in the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.

He refused to say whether he personally supports keeping troops in Iraq.

“Whole countries have failed to do this, and you want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?” Mr. al-Maliki retorted when directly asked. “I will not say it.”

Mr. al-Maliki said at least 70 percent of leaders representing the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties must support the continued U.S. military presence before he will ask the White House for the troops to remain.

“It is impossible to have a 100 percent agreement,” he said. “But when the consensus reaches 70, 80 or 90 percent, then I call this consensus. The rest should respect this.”

His words seemed to be a direct warning to his political allies, followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to go along with the general agreement. Mr. al-Sadr is virulently opposed to any American troop presence and has threatened violence if they stay past Dec. 31.

“The decision (to keep troops) is the responsibility of the political arena, and al-Sadr and the Sadrist movement are part of the political arena,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

Currently, about 46,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, down from a peak of nearly 170,000 in August 2007 at the height of sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shiites that killed dozens of people daily.

Mr. al-Maliki said American leaders have asked Baghdad for an answer before August so they can start withdrawing soldiers and shutting down dozens of bases scattered across the country.

The Dec. 31 deadline was set under a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. A new agreement would have to be reached for troops to remain in 2012, Mr. al-Maliki said, although the White House and the Pentagon have signaled they are open to that. However, it took months for both sides to hammer out the original pact, and time is running out this year for a new one to be negotiated.

Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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