WASHINGTON - American combat troops will be needed in Iraq at least into 2009 to battle a resilient Al Qaeda and still vibrant insurgency, the top US diplomat to Iraq said yesterday.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he would lead Washington's negotiations with Baghdad on an agreement that will govern the US presence there with that in mind, although the next president might "reset the conditions" for troop withdrawals.
The "need for combat operations" in Iraq will be there "certainly into next year, but how far I couldn't say," he said in an interview at the State Department. He offered no deadline for a full withdrawal.
Crocker will be the top US negotiator in talks with the Iraqis expected to begin this month. He said he expected the eventual "status of forces agreement" would allow for great flexibility in pursuing insurgents while not setting definite troop levels.
"I don't think Al Qaeda is going to have gone away after this year and we and the Iraqis are going to want to make sure we are able to pursue them, but questions of force levels and whatnot, those will be executive decisions by this president and by the next," he said. "This agreement is in no way going to get into that executive decision prerogative."
Crocker declined to speculate on how the US presidential election campaign, particularly calls for troop withdrawals by Democratic candidates, will affect the negotiations.
He also would not speculate on whether President Bush's planned force drawdown will continue after the summer. One Army brigade and two Marine battalions have returned home and will not be replaced. Four other Army brigades are to depart by July, leaving 15 brigades, or about 130,000 to 135,000 troops in Iraq.
He said yesterday's suicide bombings by two women that killed scores of people in Baghdad underscored the resilience of Al Qaeda, its desire to sow instability, and the US need to combat it.
Crocker also said Iran continues to train insurgents and supply them with weapons.