- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

BASRA, IRAQ The Obama administration pushed back Wednesday against reports saying it has decided to keep a few thousand troops in Iraq next year - a number that will do little to ease security concerns but may be too big for White House advisers who are worried about the slumping U.S. economy and the president’s re-election chances.

In Washington, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joints Chiefs, and Undersecretary of State nominee Wendy Sherman separately said there has been no decision on how many troops might stay.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey went a step further, soundly dismissing as false news reports that about 3,000 troops would remain in Iraq beyond the final Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline.

He said that figure has not been part of ongoing discussions in Baghdad, where both governments have been weighing whether as many as 10,000 U.S. forces should stay.

“That number has no official status or credibility,” Mr. Jeffrey told the Associated Press in informal comments after a Wednesday ceremony in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, where the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division replaced several thousand troops who are headed home.

Many Iraqi officials were alarmed by the 3,000 figure, which they privately consider not nearly enough troops. It was unclear whether U.S. officials in Washington floated that number to push Baghdad into making a quick decision.

Iraqi leaders are reluctant to issue a formal invitation for U.S. forces to stay, fearing a political backlash among their own followers, including some who have threatened widespread violence and attacks on the troops if they do not leave.

Shiite militias have stepped up attacks on U.S. soldiers and bases in Iraq this year. On Wednesday, two Katyusha rockets hit Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices are located.

Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said that keeping 3,000 troops is “hardly enough to execute any meaningful military mission or secure any long-term political interests going forward.”

Mr. Jeffrey took a swipe at policy advisers in Washington, suggesting an ongoing debate within the administration over the U.S. military’s future here with only four months to go before troops must leave.

“I think Washington, when it wakes up, will have really great guidance and insight as to what’s going on here,” the ambassador said.

There are currently about 45,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

A 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad requires all of them to leave Iraq by the end of the year. A decision to keep U.S. troops here into 2012 would require the approval of both governments.

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