The White House is prepared to keep as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of the year, amid growing concern that the planned pullout of virtually all remaining American forces would lead to intensified militant attacks, according to U.S. officials.
Keeping troops in Iraq after the deadline for their departure at the end of December would require agreement of Iraq's deeply divided government, which is far from certain. The Iraqis so far have not made a formal request for U.S. troops to remain, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Some powerful Iraqi political forces are staunchly opposed to a continued U.S. presence.
The Obama administration has been debating how large a force to propose leaving in Iraq. It made its proposal now in hopes of spurring a request from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government, and to give the Pentagon time to plan, the officials said.
The troops would be based around Baghdad and in a small number of other strategic locations around the country, the officials said.
Noting that Iraq had not asked yet for troops to stay, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: "There's only so much time here available for the Iraqi government to make such a request. If they do, we will consider it. Otherwise, we are keeping on schedule."
Unless Iraq asks for a change in its 2008 agreement with the George W. Bush administration, only about 200 active-duty troops would remain as advisors after December, the officials said. More than 166,000 American troops were in Iraq in 2007 when the U.S. military presence there peaked. There are about 46,000 remaining.
The idea of keeping any U.S. forces in Iraq remains deeply controversial, both in Iraq and the United States. Maliki faces pressure from hard-line members of his governing coalition not to extend the U.S. presence, and some American lawmakers strongly favor bringing all the remaining troops out on schedule.
As a candidate in 2008, President Obama promised to end the conflict in Iraq, and after taking office, he pledged to abide by the deadline. But administration officials have also signaled that they would be open to discussions with Maliki's government about extending the U.S. presence.
Though violence in Iraq has greatly diminished in recent years, car bombs and other attacks remain an almost daily occurrence. Iraqi and U.S. officers say that Iraq continues to need assistance, both in dealing with insurgents and in training its army and air force.
Iraqi government officials are divided on whether the Americans should stay. Of the country's major ethnic and religious groups, only the Kurds have come out publicly in favor of U.S. forces staying. In private, Maliki is thought to want troops to stay, but his Islamic Dawa Party released a statement in mid-June declaring that American troops should honor the agreement to leave at the end of the year.
Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's political movement is strongly opposed to the presence of U.S. forces and probably would present the biggest obstacle to large numbers of American troops remaining. Maliki needs Sadr's support to stay in office. Political leaders are expected to convene a meeting this week to discuss power-sharing in the Iraqi government, but they are also likely to broach the issue of whether American troops should be authorized to stay on.
Sami Askari, a senior member of Maliki's State of Law alliance who played a key role in negotiating the 2008 agreement, said political rifts in Iraq make it far more difficult this time to keep American forces on the ground.
"Maliki in 2008 took the lead on pushing everyone to agree on this; now he can't do that. Why would he do that and pay the political price?" Askari said. "It is madness for him to do this without being assured of support from others."
U.S. officials are concerned that Iraqi politicians will only make a decision after most or all of the remaining U.S. troops already have left, forcing the White House into the politically difficult position of deciding whether to send some forces back.
Pentagon officials have been saying for months that they need a decision on whether U.S. forces will remain. Last week, Navy Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, nominated to command U.S. special operations forces, said a small force of special operations troops should remain in order to assist Iraqi units in going after insurgents.
Cloud reported from Washington and Parker from Baghdad