BAGHDAD Months before the United States is due to complete its withdrawal from Iraq, Washington is stepping up pressure on Iraqi leaders to decide whether U.S. troops should stay to help fend off a still-potent insurgency.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking ahead of meetings with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders during a visit to Baghdad, said the United States would be willing to consider extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond the end of this year.
A bilateral security pact requires the United States to withdraw its remaining force of around 47,000 troops by year's end.
"If folks here are going to want us to have a presence we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning and our ability to figure out where we get the forces, what kind of forces we need here and what specifically the mission they want us to do," Gates told troops on a sprawling U.S. base next to Baghdad airport.
"I think there is interest in having a continuing presence, but the politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis," he said.
More than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, Iraq is struggling to halt violence from a weakened but still lethal Islamist insurgency and to put an end to a long period of political instability following general elections more than a year ago.
U.S. officials have said they expect to accelerate the removal of remaining U.S. troops, which mostly focus on training their Iraqi counterparts, in the late summer or fall so that, barring a deal to extend the U.S. presence, the entire force can be removed by the end of the year.
The United States has also been dismantling bases, removing equipment and handing over facilities to Iraqi forces.
General Lloyd Austin, who commands U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters he had not yet made a recommendation to the White House on how many troops would stay if such a deal is struck.
But he said there might be a drop-dead point after which it would be too expensive or difficult to keep troops in Iraq, or send them back once they have left.
"The clock is ticking," he said. "We will reach a point ... where it will be very difficult to recreate things that we've disassembled."
"You can do anything but it costs more money and more resources and, quite frankly, our country right now as you know is not interested in having to expend more resources because we wasted an opportunity."
The Obama administration is staring down the possibility of a government shutdown later this week if Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on spending cuts in Congress.
U.S. taxpayers may be even less willing to stomach a longer presence in Iraq as the United States launches military action in Libya and struggles with a tenacious Taliban in Afghanistan.
Austin said political wrangling that preceded the formation of Maliki's new government in December, and the continuing lack of new interior and defense ministers, had contributed to Iraq's failure to decide whether to ask for a troop extension.
Even more instrumental, however, may be the political pressure that Maliki faces within his tenuous Shi'ite-led coalition government, which was formed only after Maliki made a deal with Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who opposes the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil.
The debate over the future of U.S. troops in Iraq comes as local forces struggle to improve intelligence and logistics capabilities that could help them vanquish the insurgency.
The deadly abilities of insurgent groups like al Qaeda were evident on March 29 when gunmen used car bombs and explosive belts to attack a provincial council headquarters in the northern city of Tikrit, killing close to 60 people.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Jim Loney and Jon Hemming)