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U.S. may leave 3,000 troops in Iraq past year-end, officials say

The Obama administration is considering leaving about 3,000 American troops in Iraq after this year, rejecting more ambitious Pentagon options that would have deployed 10,000 or more military personnel, two U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The White House has made it clear to Pentagon officials and military commanders that it wants to retain only a skeletal force in Iraq, primarily to train the nation’s military and police. Even the smaller number is subject to approval by Iraqi officials, who have final say over the presence of U.S. troops in their country.

The scaled-down proposal would allow President Obama to say that he has fulfilled his pledge to end U.S. involvement in the Iraq war and bring home most American troops. But the internal debate has created tension between the White House and some military commanders, who argued that even a scaled-down U.S. role requires a military force large enough to protect itself.

“Whatever mission is given to us, we want to make sure that we have enough for force protection; that’s the concern,” said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

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As of last month, about 46,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Iraq. Unless the two governments agree to a continuing U.S. troop presence, all but a few will be withdrawn by year’s end under a 2008 agreement reached with the Iraqis by the George W. Bush administration.

As the deadline nears, some senior U.S. and Iraqi officials warn that Iraq’s army and police, despite billions of dollars in aid from Washington and its allies, will be unable to contain sectarian violence or prevent neighboring Iran from expanding its operations if U.S. forces are drawn down too far.

Pentagon officials had presented the White House with proposals to leave a larger force with greater responsibilities. But Obama’s aides have rebuffed those plans, arguing that Washington can maintain influence in Baghdad through arms sales and diplomatic engagement, rather than a large troop presence.

Privately, some commanders worry about an increase in violence if U.S. and Iraqi special operations forces are made to scale back joint raids against militants, a strategy that has helped lower violence since the bloodiest period of the war in 2006 and 2007.

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No Americans were killed in combat in Iraq in August, a first for any month since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. But 15 Americans were killed in June, the highest monthly death toll in two years.

The proposed drawdown, which will be presented to Obama and his national security team in the next week or so, has yet to be presented to Iraqi officials. Negotiations with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government began last month to determine the U.S. military mission after December.

In a statement Tuesday, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), longtime supporters of the war in Iraq, said they were “deeply troubled” by the prospect of only 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

“This is dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us over the course of repeated visits to Iraq that they require, and that is needed to support Iraq in safeguarding the hard-won gains that our two nations have achieved at such great cost,” they said.

The 3,000 troops envisioned by the White House would mostly be assigned to training Iraqi security forces, officials said. That effort would be far smaller than the current training program, which partners Iraqi military units with American counterparts.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, said recently that Iraqi forces were able to maintain security but could benefit from continued U.S. training, especially in defending Iraqi airspace, territorial waters and borders. He did not say how large a training effort would be required.

The idea of keeping any U.S. troops in Iraq is deeply controversial in both countries. 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 presidential candidate in 2008, Obama promised to end the conflict in Iraq, and after taking office, he pledged to abide by the 2011 deadline. He agreed to consider a residual force last month, however, after Maliki formally requested talks on a continuing relationship.

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“There are negotiations between the two sides, and I think soon there will be an agreement upon a certain number [of U.S. troops] required for training,” Ali Musawi, a spokesman for Maliki, said Tuesday.

Any new agreement must be approved by Iraq’s parliament, an uncertain prospect. Jawad Kadhim Jubori, a lawmaker whose bloc is tied to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement, vowed to fight any move to retain U.S. troops beyond year’s end.

“There is no need to clarify a clear thing,” he said. “The attitude of the Sadr movement has been very clear since the beginning: It is the refusal to keep any American soldier on Iraqi land. And this is the will of the Iraqis, and not just the will of the movement supporters.”

A series of senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, has visited Baghdad in recent weeks and urged Maliki to make a decision on whether U.S. troops should stay or go.

Maliki surprised American officials recently when he announced that Iraq wanted to buy 36 F-16 fighter jets, double the number that Iraq had originally proposed. Michael B. Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, was in Baghdad on Tuesday for talks about the proposed sale, Iraqi officials said.

david.cloud@latimes.com

Special correspondent Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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