Defense officials are seeking to minimize reports that Iraqi leaders have asked that 5,000 U.S. troops remain in the country after the end of the year, saying negotiations are moving ahead but aren't finished.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Iraq, said Wednesday that the key question is what missions the troops would be carrying out if they remain, and so far no decisions have been made.
As the negotiations drag on, the U.S. force levels in Iraq have stayed relatively constant, with more than 41,000 troops still on the ground there. And even as some smaller units have pulled out in recent weeks, others, including a combat aviation brigade of at least 2,000 soldiers, are scheduled to go into Iraq this month.
Under a 2008 security pact, all remaining U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of this year, although a large American diplomatic presence will remain.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been discussing whether to keep a small U.S. military presence in the country after December to train Iraqi security forces. But the two sides have been at odds over whether American troops who stay would continue to have sufficient legal protections.
U.S. officials consider the issue a potential deal-breaker, while the Iraqis see it as a challenge to their sovereignty.
Published reports in Iraq on Wednesday suggested that the Iraqis had asked the U.S. to leave as many as 5,000 U.S. forces in the country as trainers. But U.S. military officials dismissed the reports as an effort to negotiate the matter in the media.
Obama administration officials have said they are considering leaving 3,000 to 5,000 troops for an Iraqi training mission.
Buchanan told Pentagon reporters that troop totals have been kept at about 40,000 in order to give commanders the most flexibility as they debate how large a force to leave in Iraq. Over the next 2 1/2 months, he said, troops will leave the country in small units.
Military officials say commanders want to maximize the use of the soldiers who are deploying. So those scheduled to go to Iraq in the coming weeks are likely to be moved to Afghanistan or to Kuwait, depending on their specialties. That way their deployment won't be wasted and they won't simply go to Iraq for two months, then return home.
Buchanan said there also are about 150 NATO troops in Iraq, from a number of different countries, helping to train Iraqi forces.
He said military equipment is being moved out of Iraq. Just last week 399 convoys, with nearly 14,000 trucks, were hauling gear out of the country, he said.