Iraq's foreign minister said Wednesday that his country needs U.S. help to train its military past the end of 2011, hinting at a possible deal with the United States.
All American forces are scheduled leave Iraq by the end of this year, in line with a 2008 security deal agreed to by Baghdad and Washington. But privately many Iraqi and American officials say Iraq's nascent military will still need American military assistance.
Zebari and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appear to be preparing the public for some type of American military presence in Iraq past 2011, but have been trying to paint it as a training force as opposed to combat units.
"Is there a security need for Iraq for trainers, for experts? The answer is yes," Zebari told reporters in Baghdad. "I believe that things are heading to an agreement on having trainers and experts not military forces with combat troops."
Zebari provided no details, saying no agreement has been reached and Iraq has not asked for any American forces to stay. In a follow-up interview with The Associated Press, he said the trainers would be active-duty military personnel, as opposed to private contractors, but would not specify how many.
If no new agreement is reached, after Dec. 31 fewer than 200 active duty troops are expected to stay at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as military advisers and to facilitate foreign military sales. That is a common role for American diplomatic missions worldwide.
But the U.S. has offered to keep as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to help train the country's security forces, and many Iraqi officials privately have indicated they would like a more robust American military presence. However, such a large presence is politically very difficult to sell to an Iraqi public already tired of eight years of war.
The prime minister's own allies in the government, the ones most-credited with helping him win re-election last year, are followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He has made ridding Iraq of any American military presence a cornerstone of his rhetoric, and his forces have repeatedly attacked American bases and convoys in recent months.
With about 46,000 American forces still in Iraq, U.S. officials have been pushing Baghdad for an answer soon on a future troop presence so the U.S. military can determine how to move forward with the withdrawal and what would be required of the troops that might remain.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said discussions with the Iraqis involve both the number of U.S. troops that would stay, as well as the capabilities they believe they need covered.
Another sticking point is whether the remaining American troops would have legal immunity.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.