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Kurd president calls for US forces to stay in Iraq
Kurdish president calls for US forces to stay in Iraq
By The Associated Press

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) ' The powerful leader of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region is calling for American forces to stay in Iraq.

Massoud Barzani rules the three northern provinces that make up the Kurds' self-ruled region. He said during a televised speech Tuesday that if American troops leave sectarian violence might resurface.

Barzani said the central Iraqi government should sign an agreement with the U.S. to keep forces in the country.

The Kurds are strong American allies and have been widely believed to want some American forces to stay. But this is Barzani's first public statement on the issue.

All American forces are supposed to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31. But both Iraqi and U.S. officials say Iraq needs help protecting itself.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BAGHDAD (AP) ' Gunmen ambushed and killed eight Iraqi soldiers as they were returning to base after a midnight shift in the west, security officials said Tuesday, a sobering reminder of Iraqi security forces' vulnerability as the U.S. military starts to leave.

An army lieutenant was among those killed and another soldier was wounded in the late Monday night ambush, a military official and a policeman said.

On Tuesday, Iraqi troops were searching for the gunmen in and around the town of Haditha in the western Anbar province, 140 miles (220 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.

In the Iraqi capital, two government officials said U.S. authorities informed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the American military withdrawal has officially begun.

The notice, given on the day that parliament returned to work after a recess for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, puts pressure on Iraqi leaders to decide quickly if they will ask some U.S. troops to stay.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Under a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, all U.S. troops are slated to leave by Dec. 31, 2011. But continued instability and fear of growing Iranian influence in Iraq has prompted some Iraqi and U.S. officials to reconsider the deadline.

The U.S. has stressed repeatedly that Iraq must formally request the American military to stay longer and describe specifically what type of role they would like the American military to play.

"That's really up to the Iraqis. At what point do they want to ask?" said U.S. Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, the second-highest ranking American military officer in Iraq. Then it falls to the U.S. to decide whether they want to fulfill that request, he said.

But Helmick, speaking during an interview with The Associated Press Monday night, said the longer Iraq goes without making a decision, the more difficult it becomes for the American military to fulfill whatever it may be that the Iraqis ask.

"It's not to say that we can't turn it around or we can't stop. It just gets more difficult as time goes on. Would we like a decision six months ago? Yeah, sure. But we don't have it," he said.

Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq ' even just to train their nascent Iraqi security forces ' after more than eight years of war is widely unpopular among Iraqis, whose leaders are weighing whether the security risks are worth the political backlash.

The decision is expected this fall. There are about 45,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to comment.


Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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