US military chief in Baghdad, eyes on withdrawal

BAGHDAD - The top US military officer arrived in Baghdad on Thursday warning Iraqi leaders would need to start serious discussions if they wanted US forces to stay beyond a scheduled withdrawal by year’s end.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Sat 23 Apr 2011, 12:57 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:48 AM

Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking ahead of talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said the United States still planned to withdraw its remaining force of around 47,000 troops by the end of 2011. Any decision to change that was up to Iraq, he said.

“If the leadership and the Iraqi people want that to be different ... we have to initiate that dialogue in a meaningful way,” he told reporters on his flight to Baghdad.

The trip comes just two weeks after a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who pressed the Iraqi government to decide if it wanted US troops to stay on and help fend off a festering insurgency.

More than eight years after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, Iraq is struggling to halt violence from a weakened but still lethal Islamist insurgency and put an end to a long period of political instability following general elections more than a year ago.

Kurd-Arab tensions also remain unresolved.

Any extended US troop presence is politically tricky for Iraqi leaders. Iraq’s fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will “escalate military resistance” and unleash his Mehdi Army militia if US troops fail to leave Iraq as scheduled this year, his aides said earlier this month.

US officials have said they expect to accelerate the removal of remaining US troops in the late summer or autumn, so that, barring a deal to extend the US presence, the entire force can be removed by the end of the year.

The United States has also been dismantling bases, removing equipment and handing over facilities to Iraqi forces.

General Lloyd Austin, who commands US forces in Iraq, told reporters earlier this month there might be a drop-dead point after which it would be too expensive or difficult to keep troops in Iraq, or send them back once they have left.

US taxpayers may be hesitant to stomach a longer presence in Iraq — an unpopular war President Barack Obama had opposed — particularly as the United States is engaged in Libya and struggles with a tenacious Taliban in Afghanistan.

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