The Obama administration is still willing to keep thousands of American troops in Iraq next year if requested, despite a series of deadly attacks on soldiers by Shiite militiamen, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad said Saturday.
Ambassador James F. Jeffrey said no decision on the issue has been made by Washington. Baghdad's Shiite-led government has not asked to extend the U.S. troop presence, though it is widely expected to do so.
"We're not going to be intimidated by people attacking us," Jeffrey told reporters.
While deeply concerned about the increase in violence against U.S. soldiers, he said "there is not a rethinking of our goal, which is to maintain a security partnership with Iraq."
Jeffrey said that "there is no doubt in our minds .. that if we weren't around they (the militants) wouldn't put down their weapons."
"If we weren't around they would go after somebody else. And we're target No. 1 right now but they'll find other targets," the ambassador said.
Fifteen U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in June, nearly all of them killed by Shiite militiamen. It was the deadliest month for American troops in two years.
A security agreement between the two countries requires all 46,000 U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But Washington is weighing whether around 10,000 troops should stay, if asked, to help Iraq's shaky security and keep Iran from muscling in on the unstable nation.
It's a political dilemma for both President Barack Obama, who will have to sell it to war-weary U.S. voters, and for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who would need to defy the anti-American Sadrist movement that helped him keep his job after falling short in national elections last year.
A decision isn't likely before September.
Jeffrey said the U.S. Embassy will take over training of Iraq's police next year and will help its army buy and maintain tanks and other military equipment. But Iraqi security forces still need help in gathering and sharing intelligence and protecting their airspace _ assistance that U.S. troops could give if they stay.
It's far from certain that Iraq's parliament will agree to let the troops stay. Jeffrey said Iraq's government is even refusing to give the U.S. permission to keep its diplomats in the northern city of Mosul, where a consulate was planned.
In a swipe at the Sadrists, Jeffrey lambasted political groups he said are blocking key government decisions that imperil Iraq's security.
"Their agenda is a poison for democracy," he said.