Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered his clearest opening yet for the possibility of extending the presence of US troops in Iraq past their scheduled Dec. 31 departure date, saying he would do so if most of the country’s political blocs support the decision.
The prime minister’s comments on Wednesday were just as significant for what he did not say. On many previous occasions, he has insisted US troops will not be needed beyond the end of the year. This time when asked by a reporter whether he personally supports keeping troops in Iraq, he declined to answer.
“You want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?” al-Maliki said. “I will not say it.”
His words signaled a shift that could open the way for a long-term US troop presence in Iraq, though a top US military officer all but ruled that out.
Al-Maliki said he would meet with political leaders by the end of this month to gauge support. His insistence on a unified decision underscored how difficult it will be for any Iraqi leader to admit needing more military help from the country that invaded eight years ago.
“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,” al-Maliki said at a news conference at his office in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
He faces a US-imposed deadline to decide within weeks whether to ask US troops to stay longer. A revolving door of US officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have passed through Iraq in recent weeks, each appearing intent on getting Iraq to make up its mind.
The US has suggested it would favor extending the troop presence in Iraq. Gates has acknowledged that the US has an interest in having more US troops in Iraq after this year. And in an indication that there would be some congressional support, US House Speaker John Boehner said after a trip to Iraq last month that the US should keep a residual force — potentially up to 10,000 soldiers — in the country.
The US has always been clear that it must be Iraq who does the asking.
In an interview on Wednesday night, US Lieutenant General Frank Helmick said the US military was still focused on leaving in December and was urging Iraqi security forces to acknowledge their weaknesses and try to close those gaps as quickly as possible.
“How they deal with it, that’s up to them,” said Helmick, the second-highest ranking US general in Iraq. “I get this sense that people think we’re begging to stay here. We’re not begging to stay here. What we are really trying to do is provide the best possible training and leave the Iraqis the he best capability that we can leave them in by the end of the year.”