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US role in Iraq tied to building of government

By Anne Gearan
Associated Press / December 14, 2010

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BAGHDAD — The top American military officer said yesterday that any agreement to keep US forces in Iraq past a 2011 deadline would be reached only after Iraqi officials form a new government, a laborious process that began after parliamentary elections in March.

After meeting with Nouri al-Maliki, Admiral Mike Mullen congratulated Iraq’s prime minister for what he called steady progress to build a government representing Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Maliki will lead that government after months of horse-trading and political paralysis. He must announce the nation’s new leaders by Dec. 25 under a deadline required by Iraq’s constitution.

“He’s the prime minister, he’s got to work though some of these details and he’s doing it,’’ Mullen told reporters during a Christmas season visit with troops.

Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Maliki for about 20 minutes and discussed what the countries’ military relationship might be after the scheduled withdrawal of US forces next year.

“I would not prognosticate that it’s force level A, B, or C,’’ Mullen said later.

The US military has an agreement with the Iraqi government to leave by the end of 2011. However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he is open to the idea of keeping troops in Iraq past that deadline if Iraq requests it.

A military official familiar with the meeting said Mullen and Maliki did not discuss specifics, such as the possibility of a residual US force after the agreed-upon exit deadline. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information publicly.

Mullen toured a US base and took questions from soldiers.

Maliki on Saturday repeated his opposition to altering the withdrawal agreement but has stopped short of pledging to not ask US troops to stay, as many of his fellow Shi’ite Muslim political allies demand.

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