By Phil Stewart and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Pentagon said on Thursday he expected Iraq to eventually ask Washington to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond an end-2011 deadline for their withdrawal.
When it does, the United States should say "yes," outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta told a Senate committee weighing his nomination to become the next defense secretary.
"It's clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of (troop) presence to remain there," Panetta said. He said that he had "every confidence" the request would be "forthcoming at some point."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led coalition government is debating the sensitive question of whether to ask Washington to keep some of the 47,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, if only in a training and advisory role.
Maliki has called for a "mutual and unified national stand" on the issue by August 1 and has criticized other groups in the coalition for either not defining their position or using the sensitive issue to attack him and other groups.
At least one key group in Maliki's fragile cross-sectarian coalition -- the political bloc of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- openly opposes a continuing U.S. military presence and Sadr has threatened to escalate protests and even "military resistance" if U.S. . troops stay on.
U.S. and Iraqi military commanders are concerned Iraq's armed forces may not be fully ready to defend the country alone, with Washington pointing to gaps in Iraqi air defense, intelligence fusion, logistics and more.
Violence is down considerably since the height of Iraqi sectarian killings in 2006-2007 but security remains precarious. Five U.S. service members were killed in a rocket attack in Iraq on Monday, the worst single toll for U.S. forces there for at least two years.
The U.S. military said in a statement another U.S. service member was killed in southern Iraq on Wednesday.
Panetta said he estimated there were 1,000 members of al Qaeda still in Iraq.
"It, too, continues to be a fragile situation (in Iraq). And I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we've made there," Panetta said.
Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), on Wednesday claimed responsibility for deadly bombings on June 3 and June 6 in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, in a statement posted on websites used by Islamist radicals.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly suggested that Iran was another reason to keep U.S. forces in Iraq.
Washington has accused Iran of supporting Shi'ite militias, a charge Tehran denies, and Iraqi Sunnis view Iran's intentions in Iraq with enormous suspicion.
Gates said last month that a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq would be "reassuring" to Gulf states. He added it would not be reassuring to neighboring Iran and "that's a good thing."
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Baghdad; Editing by Jackie Frank and Vicki Allen)