Iraq's prime minister said Tuesday that his country does not need U.S. forces to protect its internal security but acknowledged that the country still does not have the money or training to protect its borders.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's comments come as the country is struggling to decide whether to ask American troops to stay past their expected Dec. 31 departure date. It's a politically toxic question for the Iraqi leader in a country where many people are nervous about a future without U.S. troops yet its politically unpalatable to ask the Americans to stay longer.
"The internal security situation does not need this," he said. "As for the external defense of Iraq's sovereignty, then Iraq still suffers from shortages."
However the Iraqi leader emphasized that he does not see any regional threats to Iraq's security. Many American proponents of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq point to the threat posed by neighboring Iran.
"There is no one from Iraq's neighbors who is thinking of sending his troops to Iraq. So, Iraq's sovereignty is protected by the fact that there is nobody in the current circumstances who would violate Iraq's sovereignty," he told reporters at a press conference.
According to an agreement signed in 2008, all of the roughly 47,000 U.S. forces must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31.
Many Iraqi leaders privately acknowledge the country's security shortcomings, including its lack of intelligence gathering capabilities and its inability to protect its own airspace. But as repeated anti-American protests in recent weeks have shown, a further U.S. military presence in Iraq would not be welcomed by many.
A stream of American visitors, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, have visited Iraq in recent weeks carrying the message that time is running out for Iraq to ask the U.S. to stay longer.
Mullen warned last week that Iraq had only "weeks" to ask for an extension as the U.S. military carries out the massive task of removing all its equipment and personnel from the country.
Al-Maliki rejected the suggestion his government is secretly negotiating a deal and said any new agreement would have to be passed by parliament.
The prime minister, who traveled to South Korea later Tuesday, said he would convene a meeting with all political blocs when he returns in order to discuss the future of the American troops.
The prime minister appeared to be warning political opponents that responsibility for any decision to have U.S. troops stay longer would be shared by all political groups and not just blamed on al-Maliki.
"The agreement will stay as it is, and if some people want military cooperation with any country, there should be a national agreement," he said.
In western Iraq, a bus carrying pilgrims overturned on the way to a Shiite shrine, killing seven people in what police say may have been an insurgent ambush.
Deputy Governor of Anbar province, Hikmat Jasim Zaidan, said the bus was traveling to the holy city of Samarra when it overturned west of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Seven people, including pilgrims from Pakistan, were killed and nine others injured.
As police arrived at the scene, insurgents attacked their police vehicles, wounding one police officer, Zaidan said. The police are investigating whether the accident was an ambush to lure the police.
Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.