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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq will need a U.S. troop presence to help build up its military forces past the newly agreed three-year deadline for the withdrawal of American soldiers, a senior Iraqi official said Thursday.
Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said some U.S. forces could be needed for 10 years but told reporters that the terms of any extended presence would be negotiated between the next Iraqi and U.S. governments.
Washington and Baghdad recently negotiated a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, that calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraq's cities by mid-2009 and withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. The pact takes effect on January 1, when the current U.N. mandate governing U.S. forces in Iraq expires.
"We do understand that the Iraqi military is not going to get built out in the three years. We do need many more years. It might be 10 years," Dabbagh said at a Pentagon press briefing.
Iraqi officials had spoken about the potential need for a lengthy U.S. troop presence before the new SOFA agreement. But Dabbagh's comments appeared to be the first to address the potential need for a residual U.S. presence since the pact was announced.
The Iraqi government has said its military will be ready to take over security in urban areas by next summer. But U.S. officials believe it will take years for Iraq to field the logistical and air support needed to sustain a modern fighting force.
Britain, the main U.S. partner in Iraq, will start pulling out its 4,100 troops in March due to the improving security situation, a British defense source said Wednesday.
The United States currently has 149,000 troops in Iraq, many of whom are devoted to Iraqi security force training.
Dabbagh said the decision on whether to extend the U.S. presence would not be undertaken under the current SOFA.
"It has been left for the 2011 government to think and negotiate with the Americans what residual (forces) Iraq needs, the Iraqi spokesman said.
"By that time, it will be clear what level of the troops is needed, what sort of cooperation and support the Iraqi military needs," he added.
President-elect Barack Obama, whose first term in office would expire January 20, 2013, has called for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq in 16 months but has left the door open for some forces to stay behind to train Iraqis and battle insurgents.
Reporting by David Morgan, Editing by Anthony Boadle