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US nears decision on how many troops could stay in Iraq, if Iraq asks for them
WASHINGTON (AP) ' The Obama administration is reviewing a number of options that could leave several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of the year, but only if Iraqi officials make a decision about what they want American forces to do.
U.S. officials are growing impatient, as they continue to wait for the Iraqis to make a specific request. Without that, all but a couple of hundred U.S. troops will pull out by the end of the year.
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions, said they are finalizing several options. But they said key leaders, including President Barack Obama, have not yet made a decision because it still hinges on what Baghdad ultimately requests. Officials said they want to have the options ready by mid-month.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that no decisions have been made, and that as far as he knows the Iraqis have not yet proposed a specific number.
"They have indicated a desire obviously for trainers to be there" beyond 2011, he said, "and obviously that will probably be at the core of whatever negotiations take place."
The White House has offered to keep as many as 8,500 or 10,000 troops in Iraq. The number could also be smaller, and the options under review would keep varying numbers of troops in the country depending on what types of assistance the Iraqis say they need.
Military leaders say the Iraqis have acknowledged they need further help in training and equipping their forces, gathering and sharing intelligence and protecting their air space and borders. The training program would require fewer U.S. troops, while broader security missions would call for a larger American force.
The decision is politically explosive in Iraq, where continued presence of U.S. troops would likely raise tensions and spur more violence.
There are about 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
A 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but the country's shaky security situation and vulnerability to Iranian influence has prompted politicians on both sides to buck widespread public disapproval and reconsider the deadline.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Lara Jakes in Baghdad and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in New York contributed to this report.