BAGHDAD,- Iraq has only weeks to decide if it wants to keep U.S. troops beyond an end-2011 deadline for their withdrawal, the top U.S. military officer said on Friday in Baghdad following talks with Iraq's prime minister.
The comments by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, are the strongest so far by U.S. officials warning Baghdad that Washington will soon have to initiate the withdrawal of its 47,000 forces under the terms of a bilateral security pact.
Asked what Iraq's deadline was for deciding, Mullen said: "I think the timeline is in the next few weeks."
"Because there, for the withdrawal, there is what I call a physics problem with 47,000 troops here, lots of equipment and physically it just takes time to move them."
Mullen did not speculate how many troops would be irreversibly committed to withdrawing after that time, saying only the Pentagon would need to make some "irrevocable" logistics and operational decisions.
More than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, Iraq is struggling to halt a weakened but still lethal Islamist insurgency and put an end to a long period of political instability after general elections in March 2010.
Amid media speculation about backroom talks to clinch an agreement, Mullen said there have been no official discussions on the extended presence of U.S. forces beyond December.
He said the U.S. military would fully meet its obligations under the security pact to move troops out of Iraq by year-end.
"There are no plans -- nor have there been any requests from the Iraqi government -- for any residual U.S. force presence here after this December," he said.
Any decision by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to extend the presence of U.S. troops is risky. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist bloc is part of Maliki's government, will unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. troops fail to leave Iraq by year-end, his aides said earlier this month.
Mullen criticised those comments as "irresponsible."
"The extension of that statement is to essentially threaten violence in the future and Iraq has seen more than its fair share of violence and death," Mullen said.
Sadr's political movement won strong support in elections last year and overcame animosity towards Maliki to join his coalition government.
"So I think a statement like that ... is irresponsible in terms of taking care of Iraqi citizens in the future," Mullen said.
Sadr's Mehdi Army fought U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion and during the height of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006-7. Maliki sent government troops to crush the militia in 2008.
Mullen also acknowledged Iraq's political leaders had to take "everything into consideration" when reviewing the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship. But he also noted Iraqi "vulnerabilities," including in air defence and intelligence.
Maliki said in a statement released on his website late on Thursday after his talks with Mullen the government was keen to develop relations with the United States, particularly with regards to training and arming its security forces.
"Our security forces are now able to hold the responsibility, preserve the security and to act professionally and patriotically," Maliki said.
"We will enhance its combat ability through supplying it with modern arms and equipment." (Editing by Jim Loney and Sophie Hares)
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