WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense hawks in the Congress said on Wednesday the United States should leave at least 10,000 troops in Iraq beyond a year-end withdrawal deadline, but one senior lawmaker countered that it was wrong for the United States to press to stay.
The Obama administration said it had yet to decide, and noted that in any case there was no agreement with Baghdad that any of the 46,000 American troops currently in Iraq should remain next year.
The lawmakers were discussing media reports that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta supported a plan to keep 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end of the year pullout deadline agreed in a bilateral security pact.
"I was not overjoyed when I heard 3,000. I have heard from (U.S.) commanders in the field that they think we shouldn't go below 10 (thousand)," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, a Republican who has been warning of the perils of cutting back U.S. defense spending in general.
"I think 10,000, when you add it up, is probably the bare minimum to do this," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and officer in the Air Force reserves who has frequently visited U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran was trying to destabilize Iraq's fragile democracy, Graham warned, speaking on the Senate floor along with fellow defense hawks John McCain and Joe Lieberman.
They said U.S. forces were needed to help the Iraqis with intelligence, training, counterterrorism, peacekeeping in areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds, and protecting U.S. civilians that will stay in Iraq.
But Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin told reporters that he was not concerned that 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would be too few. In any case, Levin, a moderate Democrat, said: "I don't think it's appropriate for us to be pressing the Iraqis to be asking us for troops."
"We ought to consider a request ... But for us to be sending a message that 'you need us,' is the wrong message, I believe," Levin said outside the Senate.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said he wouldn't comment on "internal administration deliberations surrounding what we're discussing with the Iraqi government."
"It's important to remember that the Iraqis have a say in this too," Little said.
President Obama has overseen a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq to 46,000 from around 140,000 when he took office in January 2009. He had pledged to have all out by the end of 2011 but U.S. officials have not ruled out a training mission.
U.S. officials have been pressing Iraq to decide soon whether they want to keep any U.S. troops in the country.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has a fragile power-sharing agreement with Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd parties who don't agree on a continued U.S. military presence.
Kurdish officials are widely known to want U.S. forces to stay, as do some in Iraq's Sunni minority. But anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a member of the coalition government, has threatened to step up protests and military resistance if U.S. troops stay.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)