By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When it comes to the tricky political calculus of deciding how many U.S. troops to keep in Iraq, President Barack Obama may truly have no good options.
Obama was an Iraq war opponent who repeatedly promised no U.S. troops will remain in the country beyond 2011, the deadline for the U.S. withdrawal under a bilateral pact.
But his past two defense secretaries have publicly advocated keeping some U.S. forces there on a training mission, should Iraq ask for it. To that end, Iraq and the United States agreed to start formal negotiations last month.
Sources tell Reuters the Obama administration is now considering options including a training force as small as 3,000 troops in the country. Obama's Democratic base may still feel that is too many and Republican critics say that number is too few to guard against a dangerous escalation in violence.
Any deterioration in Iraq could come back to haunt Obama during the 2012 U.S. presidential election year. It would remind Democrats that American forces are still in danger there while bolstering a Republican narrative of policy blunder.
In his State of the Union address, Obama vowed to "finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq." Civilians, he said, would forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, a nod to an expanded role planned for the State Department.
To counter the impression of backpedaling, the Obama administration appears to be flirting with the idea of rebranding current military operations in Iraq as "combat" and future ones as "training."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month, at event where she was flanked by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, "our combat mission in Iraq ends at the end of this year."
"Our support and training mission, if there is to be such a one, is what the subject of this discussion (with the Iraqis) would be," she said at the National Defense University.
There is a problem though: Obama has already announced the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. The remaining 43,000 or so forces in the country are already in an 'advise and assist' role, even though the U.S. military still sometimes conducts air strikes.
SPLIT WITH THE MILITARY?
Declaring that the "tide of war is receding," Obama announced in June a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan than his military had recommended. That may now happen in Iraq, although there are competing visions within the military itself about just how big a force may be needed.
Eight years after the United States ousted Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still building its police and army to battle a lethal Sunni Islamist insurgency and Shi'ite militias within, as well as defending against external threats.
Anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a key member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition government who openly opposes any continued U.S. presence, has threatened to escalate protests and military resistance if any American troops stay.
So, the U.S. military has emphasized that "force protection" for American troops will be key to any future mission in Iraq.
The Pentagon declined to comment on internal deliberations, but sources familiar with the matter said U.S. officers have felt at least 10,000 troops would be necessary to help Baghdad address all the shortcomings in its security forces.
Even so, Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno, until last year the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has not expressed alarm at the possibility of keeping on just 3,000 troops.
He told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday: "I always felt that we had to be careful about leaving too many people in Iraq. I'm not saying 3,000 to 5,000 is the right number. But what I would say is there comes a time when ... it becomes counter-productive" to have too many forces.
Too many troops risk being seen as an occupying force, he said.
KURDS VS ARABS
One example of a mission that could fall by the wayside is U.S. operations to keep the peace between Arabs and Kurds.
The president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region warned this week that the withdrawal of U.S. forces will increase the possibility of a civil war.
"If you're doing 3,000, you could do a scaled-back version of the Northern Iraq mission and that's all you'd be doing," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Odierno, who had long been the face of the Iraq mission before General Lloyd Austin took over this year, said that wasn't necessarily the case.
"I've heard some discuss where we need 5,000 people to work the Arab-Kurd issue. Well, I've read some things lately that we think that they are starting to handle that," he said.
"So if that's the case, then we don't need those 5,000," he added, without directly taking a position on the issue.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)