ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq needs a U.S. military presence beyond this year and the withdrawal of American forces will increase the possibility of civil war, the president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region said on Tuesday.
With less than four months to go before a 2008 security pact between Washington and Baghdad expires, Iraq's government is having trouble deciding if it wants some U.S. troops to remain beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal.
Kurdish officials are widely known to want U.S. forces to stay, particularly as a buffer in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories claimed by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government in Arbil.
But Kurdish president Masoud Barzani's comments in a speech to Kurdish diplomats in Arbil on Tuesday was one of the most forthright statements on the issue by any Iraqi leader to date.
"In our opinion the need for the U.S. forces in Iraq is still on ... the absence of U.S. forces in Iraq means the possibility of civil war will prevail," Barzani said.
More than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the United States still has about 43,000 troops and 43 bases in Iraq.
Any decision to extend their presence is risky. Many political groups are hesitant to take a clear position.
Anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a key member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition government who openly opposes any continued U.S. presence, has threatened to escalate protests and military resistance if American troops stay.
Maliki has said Iraq may need only trainers rather than troops, which would allow him to bypass parliament and sign deals between Washington and individual ministries.
"A U.S. presence in Iraq, under whatever title, is important for Iraq," Barzani said. "Iraqi security forces have not reached a level that can provide security inside Iraq. Neither can the Iraqi military forces protect Iraqi borders.
"(In) a country that has no qualified military to defend its soil, airspace and shores, its security forces cannot protect its citizens," he added.
U.S. forces officially halted combat operations on August 31, 2010 and took up an advisory role to the Iraqi police and army as they struggle to battle a still lethal Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias that carry out dozens of attacks every month.
Some Iraqi politicians and top military officials have said that Iraq's security forces cannot contain the threats alone.
Washington has repeatedly pressed Iraq to decide soon whether it wants any U.S. troops to stay.
Barzani criticized Iraqi politicians for what he called a double standard. He said they want U.S. forces to stay but refuse to say so publicly.
"All the political parties say one thing when they speak directly. But they say something else before cameras," he said.
(Reporting by Shamal Aqrawi; Writing by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Jim Loney and Paul Taylor)