, WASHINGTON, Jul 24 – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hinted that US troops may remain in Iraq beyond the end of 2011, the deadline set under a bilateral agreement reached last year.
"Pursuant to the agreement, in 2011, the military presence of the Americans will take end in Iraq," Maliki told a US think-tank.
"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.
"I am sure that the prospects… and the desire of such cooperation is found among both parties," Maliki added in Arabic at the US Institute of Peace, according to a translation of his remarks by an interpreter.
His comments, which came less than a month after US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns, signaled a shift, as Iraqi and US officials have insisted the December 31, 2011 deadline is a firm one.
Speaking with Maliki by his side at the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, Obama again insisted that the United States would fulfill its commitment to remove all of its troops from Iraq by 2011.
The Iraqi leader has declared June 30 a national holiday to mark the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq’s urban areas on that day, marking a key milestone in the Iraqi government’s attempts to assert its authority throughout the country despite simmering ethnic tensions.
During talks with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon later Thursday, Maliki discussed the needs of Iraq’s security forces as the country continues to modernize its military, a spokesman said.
Those needs "ran the gamut from air, sea and ground equipment," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told AFP, while declining to cite specific military platforms Baghdad has requested.
"The secretary made it clear that he is looking for ways to speed up and make more flexible our systems for arming and equipping the Iraqi security forces," Morrell said.
"We are trying to find creative ways to streamline our ways of equipping them, because they clearly need additional capabilities to exert greater sovereignty from their territory, to protect themselves from internal threats and to deter external ones. We want to make sure they get what they need to do their job."
The meeting, which lasted less than one hour, was also attended by Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Obeidi, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani and US Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill.
Obama has also vowed to remove all US combat troops from the country by August 2010, leaving only a residual force of trainers and other military personnel largely fulfilling a support role.
Although the 130,000 US troops remaining in Iraq have largely left Iraq’s urban areas, Maliki said last month that American air capacity would be crucial to support local forces in ensuring security.
Maliki on Thursday also paid symbolic tribute to US soldiers killed in Iraq, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.
The cemetery, a national landmark, is the final resting place for 330,000 military personnel, including 461 soldiers killed in Iraq and 93 killed in Afghanistan. Some 4,327 American soldiers have been killed since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.