BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq wants the United States to supply several thousand trainers for its military but is unlikely to ask Washington to extend its troop presence beyond a year-end deadline, Iraqi security and political sources say.
The difference between troops and trainers, usually former soldiers and police contracted to the U.S. government, may be critical for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as he deals with squabbling politicians and tries to appease constituents who want the Americans out.
With less than six months to go on the 2008 security pact between the two countries, Maliki is having a hard time unifying his shaky cross-sectarian coalition government on whether Iraq needs to keep some U.S. troops more than eight years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Americans expect President Barack Obama to wind up the unpopular war in Iraq as he grapples with debt talks and a fragile economic recovery while the election campaign heats up.
Any decision to extend U.S. troops is risky in Iraq. The political bloc of anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr openly opposes a continued U.S. presence and Sadr has threatened to escalate protests and military resistance if troops stay.
To avoid angering allies and fuelling sectarian tension, Maliki, who is also acting defense and interior minister, may opt to bypass parliament and have his ministries sign agreements with Washington for 2,000-3,000 U.S. trainers, sources said.
“If the political blocs refused to announce their final decision on the U.S. withdrawal ... Maliki would go it alone and sign memorandums of understanding with the American side,” said a senior lawmaker in Maliki’s State of Law party.
“In that case, he would not need to get the political blocs or the parliament to approve,” the lawmaker said.
The lawmaker, who is close to Maliki, said the 3,000 U.S. trainers would need security, technical and logistic support which could raise the contractors’ total to around 5,000.
Baghdad and Washington already have basic agreements for ongoing training of Iraqi forces, but are now discussing specifics rather than talking about an extension of U.S. troop presence in the country, Iraqi sources said.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. military chief, said this month any agreement to keep troops in Iraq would also have to address Iran’s support for extremist Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
In a recent interview with state-owned Iraqiya television, Maliki appeared to signal he favored the trainer strategy when he said it would be difficult to secure a majority in parliament for a troop extension, but that a training contingent would not need lawmakers’ approval.
“We have received and bought American weapons, tanks, planes, and will buy fighter jets, and we have warships. It is necessary that we have trainers (for the equipment),” he said.
“That’s why we have decided in the National Security Council that we need a keep a number of American trainers.”
The trainers would not be active-duty military personnel but rather contractors with military or security backgrounds. They would not conduct combat operations, political sources said.
Among Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs, some agree behind closed doors on the need for a continued U.S. presence but will not make such a view public, fearing a voter backlash.
Baghdad is supposed to deliver its decision this month.
U.S. forces, now about 46,000, took up an advisory role after officially ending combat operations last August but Iraqi and U.S. officials are concerned over the readiness of Iraqi troops to deal with a stubborn insurgency and possible foreign aggression.
U.S. officials have said they are willing to consider leaving troops, but Iraq must make a request.
Washington has long planned a large presence in Iraq even after troops leave with thousands of U.S. personnel, including civilians and a military contingent, stationed at the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad and U.S. missions in major cities.
Iraq wants to keep seven “training centers,” rather than military bases, a senior security official said.
Police and army would train in two Baghdad centers; infantry in the northern city of Mosul; air force in Kirkuk; navy in the southern oil hub Basra; and centers in Besmaya south of Baghdad and in Taji north of the capital would focus on training in the use of tanks, a senior security official said.
“From the U.S. officials’ point of view we would need 6,000 to 7,000 trainers and experts over the next five years. But we think we do not need more than 2,000 to 3,000,” said the official, who is close to the talks with the United States.
“We do not need to keep any combat troops ... We have intelligence cooperation with the U.S. and this will continue.”