BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi parliament deputy says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Baghdad seeking a deal to allow thousands of U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after the withdrawal deadline, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reports.
Saad Muttalibi, a leading member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law faction, told RFI on April 7 the U.S. wants to keep 10,000-20,000 troops beyond 2011 and Gates' visit is an effort to exert pressure on the Iraqi government on this issue.
Muttalibi said the Iraqi government has no intention of agreeing to the extension and that is why Iraq included a provision in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) it has with the United States that ensures SOFA cannot be prolonged.
He added that while U.S. officials are talking to Iraqi government officials about the extension, it is the legislative branch that has the final word on the issue.
Muttalibi said that any proposed extension to the existing agreement or negotiating a new one is subject to approval by parliament. But he said the current alignment of parties in the legislature is unlikely to approve such a deal being made.
Iraq analyst Asaad al-Abadi told RFI that "rather than the U.S. applying pressure on al-Maliki's government to accept a residual U.S. force beyond 2011, it is the latter that should pressure the U.S. to keep some of its forces after December 31, 2011 because it is not a good time for the U.S. forces to leave."
He said that when SOFA expires at the end of the year, negotiations on an extension should be initiated by Iraq as Baghdad needs such a prolongation much more than Washington does.
Al-Abadi said that considering Iraq's fledgling democracy, most observers would agree that some kind of U.S. military presence is necessary given the present circumstances.
During what he described as probably his final visit to Iraq, Gates said on April 7 that the U.S. administration would keep U.S. troops beyond 2011 if the Iraqi government wanted them. But he said the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly."
"So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we are going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning," Gates said. "I think there is interest [on the part of Iraq] in having a continued presence [of U.S. troops]. The politics are such that we will just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis."