BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s air force will need support beyond this year but any extended presence of U.S. troops would have to be supported by all the main political groups, Iraq’s prime minister said on Tuesday.
The United States is due to withdraw its 47,000 remaining troops from Iraq by December 31, more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, as part of a joint security pact.
Anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc plays a powerful role in the government, has said he will unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. troops stay beyond December.
“If we talk about the internal need, our security forces are capable now to maintain the situation. But regarding the external challenge, yes, the Iraqi military still needs weapons to defend its sovereignty, especially for the air force,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said at a news conference.
Maliki has said repeatedly that his army and police are capable of handling security, despite concerns about a weakened but still lethal insurgency that carries out dozens of bombings and other attacks each month.
U.S. troops, which have acted in an advisory role since Washington formally ended combat operations in Iraq last August, have mainly focused on training Iraq’s army and police.
The air force and navy remain underdeveloped.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on a visit to Baghdad last Friday that Iraq only had weeks to decide if it wants to keep U.S. troops on beyond December 31.
Maliki said no talks had been held so far within his cabinet about the issue and there was no deadline by which a decision needed to be made.
He stressed that any extension of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond December would need the support of all main political factions.
“No deal will happen unless there is a national unified stand,” he said.
“Otherwise everything will remain as it is and this pact will be terminated by the end of this year. A deal of any military cooperation with the United States, Britain, France or any other country will not happen unless everyone agrees.”
Thousands of Iraqis have been taking to the streets since April 9 in the northern city of Mosul to protest against any extension of U.S. troops’ stay.
Maliki said he would start discussions with the main political blocs over the issue after a state visit to South Korea. He was expected to leave later on Tuesday.
Editing by Serena Chaudhry