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Sources: 10K US troops on offer for Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — The White House is offering to keep up to 10,000 troops in Iraq next year, U.S. officials say, despite opposition from many Iraqis and key Democratic Party allies who demand that President Barack Obama bring home the American military as promised.

Any extension of the military’s presence, however, depends on a formal request from Baghdad — which must weigh questions about the readiness of Iraqi security forces against fears of renewed militant attacks and unrest if U.S. soldiers stay beyond the December pullout deadline.

Iraq is not expected to decide until September at the earliest, when the 46,000 U.S. forces left in the country had hoped to start heading home.

Already, though, the White House has worked out options to keep between 8,500 and 10,000 active-duty troops to continue training Iraqi security forces during 2012, according to senior Obama administration and U.S. military officials in interviews with The Associated Press. The figures also were noted by foreign diplomats in Baghdad briefed on the issue.

All spoke on condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the sensitive matter during interviews over the past two weeks.

An email statement Tuesday from White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said there currently are “no plans” to keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline. But Vietor added that any request by Iraq to keep American forces “would be given serious consideration” by the White House.

Any change in the U.S. military withdrawal timetable in Iraq — after more than eight years and more than 4,450 U.S. military deaths — could open up difficult political confrontations for Obama as pressure builds to close out the Iraq mission and stick to pledges to draw down troops in Afghanistan.

The Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, told the AP that the high cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq — given a mounting U.S. debt crisis and Iraq’s fledgling security gains — is no longer necessary.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, estimated nearly $1 trillion has been spent in Iraq since the U.S. invaded in 2003, including $50 billion this year alone.

“As Iraq becomes increasingly capable, it is time for our own troops to return home by the end of the year and for these precious resources to be directed elsewhere,” Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said in the statement. “There is no question that the United States must continue to provide support for the Iraqis as they progress, but now is the time for our military mission to come to a close.”

Reid was responding to a request for comment after 15 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in June, mostly by Shiite militias, in the deadliest month for the American military here in two years.

It was the first public statement by a top party leader to oppose Obama’s policy in Iraq, and may signal splintering Democratic support over his war planning just as he ramps up his 2012 re-election campaign.

Iraq has flown under Washington’s political radar for much of the last year, and Democrats who want Obama to end the war this year as promised vowed to exert more pressure on the White House.

Running for president in 2008, Obama promised to withdraw all troops from Iraq — what he had described years earlier as “a dumb war, a rash war.” Shortly after he took office, he pledged to stick to a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline negotiated between Washington and Baghdad for all U.S. forces to leave Iraq.

Recently, however, the door gradually has been opening to push the deadline. In May, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates signaled Obama is willing to keep troops in Iraq beyond December. Last week, Navy Vice Adm. William McRaven, nominated to command U.S. special operations forces, said a small commando force should remain.

Without a request from Iraq, fewer than 200 active duty troops would stay at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as military advisers, a role that is common for American diplomatic missions worldwide. More than 166,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq in October 2007, the peak of the Pentagon’s surge.

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