By ANNE GEARAN, AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan, Ap National Security Writer 50 mins ago
WASHINGTON – Iraq's prime minister left the door open Thursday to the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the date both countries have set as a firm deadline for the last American soldiers to leave.
Although Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said an agreement reached last year would end U.S. military involvement in Iraq in 2011, he suggested that agreement could be reconsidered.
"Nevertheless, if the Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this then at that time, based on the needs of Iraq," al-Maliki told a Washington audience.
"I am sure that the prospects and the ... desire of such cooperation is found among both parties," al-Maliki said, according to an interpreter's translation of his remarks in Arabic.
Iraqi and U.S. leaders have repeatedly said the deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, will not change. President Barack Obama repeated the commitment to leave by that date when al-Maliki visited the White House on Wednesday.
The deadline agreement, reached after months of wrangling, mandated the U.S. handover last month of security control of Iraq's cities and said all U.S. forces will quit the country by 2012.
Obama has also set a deadline of August 2010 to remove U.S. combat forces, meaning that in theory those remaining into 2011 would be trainers, advisers, support personnel and so forth.
Privately, many U.S. military officers have said they anticipate a need for that kind of support for Iraq's armed forces for several years to come, although it is not clear that Iraq would accept the help.
More than 130,000 American troops remain in the country, and many Iraqis are eager to see them leave. Ahead of national elections next year, al-Maliki is portraying himself as the leader who defeated terrorism and ended the U.S. occupation.
Al-Maliki declared a national holiday on June 30, the day U.S. forces withdrew from full-time presence in the cities, saying the U.S. departure will "bolster Iraq's security" and show the world that Iraqis can manage their own affairs.
On Thursday, al-Maliki said divisions between the Kurds in Iraq's north and the rest of the country are one of the most dangerous challenges facing his country. The Kurdish region is locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with the central government over oil-rich land.
Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace, al-Maliki said he is committed to political pluralism. Al-Maliki, who has been accused of trying to gain political capital by playing up sectarian divisions, says his Shiite-led government is working hard to unite the country.