Iraq's prime minister offered his clearest opening yet Wednesday for the possibility of extending the presence of U.S. troops here past their scheduled Dec. 31 departure date, saying he would do so if most of the country's political blocs support the decision.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's comments were just as significant for what he did not say. On many previous occasions, he has insisted American troops will not be needed beyond the end of the year. This time when asked by a reporter whether he personally supports keeping troops in Iraq, he declined to answer.
"You want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?" al-Maliki retorted. "I will not say it."
His words signaled a shift that could open the way for a long-term American troop presence in Iraq, though a top U.S. military officer all but ruled that out.
Al-Maliki said he will meet with political leaders by the end of this month to gauge support. His insistence on a unified decision underscored how difficult it will be for any Iraqi leader to admit needing more military help from the country that invaded eight years ago.
"I will bring the leaders of the political blocs together. If they say yes, I will agree and if they say no, I will reject it," al-Maliki said at a news conference at his office in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
He faces an American-imposed deadline to decide within weeks whether to ask U.S. troops to stay longer. A revolving door of American officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have passed through Iraq in recent weeks, each appearing intent on getting Iraq to make up its mind.
The U.S. has suggested it would favor extending the troop presence in Iraq. Gates has acknowledged that the U.S. has an interest in having more U.S. troops in Iraq after this year. And in an indication that there would be some congressional support, House Speaker John Boehner said after an April trip to Iraq that the U.S. should keep a residual force _ potentially up to 10,000 soldiers _ in the country.
The U.S. has always been clear that it must be Iraq who does the asking.
In an interview Wednesday night, U.S. Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick said the American military is still focused on leaving in December and is urging Iraqi security forces to acknowledge their weaknesses and try to close those gaps as quickly as possible.
"How they deal with it, that's up to them," said Helmick, the second-highest ranking American general in Iraq. "I get this sense that people think we're begging to stay here. We're not begging to stay here. What we are really trying to do is provide the best possible training and leave the Iraqis the he best capability that we can leave them in by the end of the year."
He said, "We want to do the absolute best job that we can do, but America doesn't beg."
The U.S. military still has about 46,000 troops in the country, millions of pieces of equipment and nearly 70 bases. U.S. officials have said they need to be able to make plans on what will go and what will stay. The agreement governing the presence of the remaining American troops took months to hammer out in 2008, and coming up with a new agreement could take equally as long.
The departure of U.S. troops could leave Iraq vulnerable. It cannot yet protect its own airspace, and relies on the U.S. for intelligence-gathering capabilities and logistics and maintenance of its military equipment.
Equally important might be the nervousness many Iraqis feel at how the U.S. departure will affect sectarian relations. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-led government ruled over the country's Shiite majority. The invasion paved the way for a Shiite-led government, that is now drifting closer to Iran.
Many Sunnis and even Shiites worry that Iraq is falling too much into Iran's orbit, something that will only increase when the U.S. military leaves.
One of the biggest obstacles to the U.S. staying on is al-Maliki's own political partner: Muqtada al-Sadr. The anti-American Shiite cleric was instrumental in al-Maliki, also a Shiite, securing a second term last fall. He is vehemently against any extended American troop presence and has vowed violence if the American troops stay longer.
Many Sunni and Kurdish leaders want U.S. troops to remain to help the nation become more stable and to continue training security forces that are still unprepared to defend their borders.
But even within the Sunni community, publicly supporting a U.S. troop extension is a tough sell with their constituencies. Iraqis in the northern city of Mosul and the western province of Anbar _ both Sunni strongholds _ have demonstrated against American troops staying longer.
Members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc contacted Wednesday said they would wait to see the details of any troop proposal before deciding whether to back it.
"In general, Iraqiya rejects extending the American troops. We are against that. But if al-Maliki submits logical and satisfactory justifications for the extension such as the inability of Iraqi forces, then we will study that," said an Iraqiya lawmaker, Nahida al-Dayni.
Al-Maliki said he doesn't expect 100 percent agreement but that if 70 percent or more of the blocs approve the troop extension, then the rest should respect the decision.
His words seemed to be a direct warning to al-Sadr to not cause havoc if an agreement is reached.
"The decision (to keep troops) is the responsibility of the political arena, and al-Sadr and the Sadrist movement are part of the political arena," al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki said American leaders have asked Baghdad for an answer before August so they can start withdrawing soldiers and shutting down dozens of bases scattered across the country.
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.